25: Just Finish

25: Just Finish

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Just Finish

Runners just do it — they run for the finish line even if someone else has reached it first.

~Author Unknown

Jeff Ortega lost the eighteen-year-old son who shared his name two weeks before I met him on a roadway in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But I didn’t know that when he caught up with me about fifteen minutes into my run of the final leg of the 2011 Tulsa Route 66 Marathon Relay. Four of my other co-workers had just run their five-mile sections, and they counted on me to finish strong on that cold November morning.

I didn’t know if I would. Truth was, I’d started off the run with a bad attitude, a negative one for sure. The wind whipped my face too hard, chapping my lips before I’d even started. All around the race the November chill set in and promised to stay, never allowing temperatures to get out of the forties. As I waited at the University of Tulsa for my section to begin, I watched rain misting outside from thick clouds.

Race day had proven miserable and left me questioning why I always signed up for races like this one. It was my first time in Tulsa; I’d never been more ready to hop in my Honda and head back to Oklahoma City.

When Jeff caught up with me on the race trail, I could see immediately that something had gone wrong. His stride looked painful; I saw him wince more than once. I wondered for a split second if he’d fall out like some of the other marathon runners I’d seen on past runs.

“You can do this,” I told him encouragingly, breaking the ice between cold breaths. I realized I’d hit a pace where talking didn’t feel painful.

“I don’t know if I can,” Jeff admitted. Then he told me how on mile six, sixteen miles back, he’d felt a sharp pain rip through one of his legs, an injury that screamed with every step. He told me he’d wondered for the last few miles if he should quit the race all together. This seasoned marathon runner wrestled with a body that had broken down.

“You can’t quit now,” I chided as our feet fell into place. “We’re almost done. You’re almost done.”

Jeff nodded. “I want to keep going, but I’m afraid,” he said. “I don’t know if I can make it, if I even want to any more.”

I guess that’s when I knew that I had to run with him. I guess that’s when I knew I needed to force him to think positively.

For the next few minutes, we got the formalities out of the way. He told me about his home in St. Louis, how he worked for a company there. I mentioned I had just moved to Oklahoma City to anchor the 9 p.m. news. He explained how he had come to Tulsa as part of a running group of about seventy people. I told him I’d spent the last few years in Cincinnati.

“Cincinnati?” Jeff said, and then his face changed. “My son, he lived around there with his mother.”

Right then and there, between huffs and painful steps, Jeff told me the real reason he’d come to Tulsa.

Just two weeks before, his son had fallen off a balcony at a home in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Just eighteen, Jeff Jr., was gone in an instant in an accident no one could explain, a life moment that made sense to no one on earth.

Father and son had loved running and bonded over the physicality and the body stress that came with a race. Now this grieving man had just two and a half more miles to finish a race he and his running group had dedicated to his son’s memory.

“We’re all wearing black,” Jeff told me. “But I think I’m the last one to finish, you know, since I got hurt.”

I looked down at my own black North Face jacket, at the fleece that wrapped me against the cold and the black pants that matched. “Well, I’ve got black on too,” I replied. “So I guess now I’m running in memory of your son as well. I’d be honored if you’d let me.”

Jeff smiled.

Over the next two miles, he shared with me some of his memories. We laughed; we cried. We kept pace. Jeff told me about how much his son impacted the world around him, how the boy he loved had an infectious spirit unmatched by anyone he’d ever met. I told Jeff about my own loss, how I’d buried my father when I was ten and run down my own road of grief.

And then, we saw the sign for 25.9 miles. We only had .3 miles until the finish.

“Do you have something left?” I asked Jeff. “Can you finish strong?”

“Yeah,” said Jeff resoundingly. “I do.”

We picked up the pace, pushed harder, and watched the runner’s chute come into our sights. The finish was there; it was happening. For me, it had been a run of just over five miles, for Jeff it had been a journey of 26.2.

Somehow, we both were about to leave that race as different people.

The rest of my relay team fell in step with me, but I could hardly hear their cries of “We did it,” and “Woohoo” as I crossed the line with Jeff. I only thought about him, about what those seconds said about life, about struggle and journey. Then we crossed the line. I saw his family cheering for him, the runners waiting to pull him in their arms.

Before I knew it, I hugged him too. And sobbed.

So did he.

“I want you to meet my son’s mother and my family,” he said, and pulled me over to the tent where they all waited. Someone showed me a huge poster of Jeff’s son, all the family photos they’d brought. We all hugged again, and cried some more.

Somewhere among all the 2011 Tulsa Route 66 Marathon photos is one of Jeff and me. We’ve got medals around our necks, big smiles on our faces.

You wouldn’t know by just looking at the photo what had happened along the race route. But we know, and we always will.

The best races in life aren’t the ones you win. The best races in life are the ones where it takes everything you have just to finish.

~Sara Celi

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