To the casual eye, nothing looks out of place. But an experienced runner, or someone with intimate knowledge of “nipple chaffing” can see what most cannot: The blood soaking through my shirt, dried up on the edges of my runners bib. I learned a thing or two from running 26.2 miles but the most important lesson was this: community matters. And not just in the wax poetic kind of way but in the “save your damn nipples from hurting in the shower for the next week” practical kind of way as well. Had I known nipples could chaff, I would have got NipGuards (a real product) or at least grabbed at the Vaseline various volunteers held alongside cups of water at various mile markers.
But I also learned two other lessons. First, very little in life is insurmountable. I wouldn’t have called myself a fitness warrior before that race, and I wouldn’t have called myself one at any point after that. But what started as out as running a simple mile turned into 3.1, which turned into 5, then 10, 13, 18, and finally 26.2.
But ten years later, the second lesson has been far more humbling, painful, and if I’m vulnerable with you all- deeply humiliating. The reality is this: Achievements in running are fleeting if we aren’t willing to show up everyday and put the work in for it. And so my life as of late has been the opposite of that joy and confidence I felt years prior. 26.2 miles became 18, which slipped to 13, then to 10, down to 5, until at last 3.1 became a challenge and one became the minimum at which I could still safely commit to.
As one of my great students reminded me yesterday, you’re confined only by the walls you build. For sometime now, I’ve been more than ready to break some of those walls down. And yesterday, I began to chip away at it.
Running, like most of what I gravitate to, when at its best is about one thing: Community. In 2004 I joined a marathon training group late in the process, and my first run with them was 14 miles. I can’t imagine what many of my fellow runners must have thought when I showed up that morning, heavy cotton t-shirt, basketball shoes, long shorts, no water, no Gatorade, no Gu (runners know what I am talking about), nada. About 9 miles in, when the struggles to endure on and keep running grew more difficult, it was my fellow runners who came to my aid. They shared their water and Gatorade, supplied me their precious energy gu. As some cramps finally became overbearing and I felt I could no longer go on, and just wanted to shrink away into the shadows, one of the leaders who I hadn’t met yet stopped to walk with me. As we walked, I asked him why he was running and as often happens with that question, he told me the story of how his life brought him to lace up.
A former drug addict, he realized addiction was a part of his life he’d have to not just live with, but “actively own as part of who I am” as he put it. He figured if he had to be addicted to anything, he’d trade the heavy narcotics for running. It took losing his wife and being estranged from his kids to reach that moment where change was so clearly needed, but he was thankful he got there, struggles and all. How did he get there? “Love” he told me quietly.
A friend of his, a former addict himself, wouldn’t let him slide. He hung with him when everyone else left him. He pushed him to rehab and after rehab introduced him to running. Training for a marathon became his new addiction, and it was what allowed him to turn his life around. And together, the two of them had now completed roughly 20 marathons together. “So why do I now train others to complete their own marathon? Because for everything I have gotten from running, I have to give something back, you know? Running saved my life and so I know better than anyone how personal and meaningful each person’s reason for getting to that start line is. If I get to help them discover a more meaningful existence through running, and get them to the finish line, well, that makes me feel redeemed for some of the awful mistakes of my past.”
Race day was anything but easy. It was unusually hot, reaching into the 90’s. Thousands of people who started the marathon didn’t finish it. I didn’t hit my target finish time, not even close. But when I did at last cross that mythical finish line, I began to cry. As a volunteer wrapped a metal blanket around me she asked me if I was alright and if I required medical care. “These are happy tears” I told her, laughing a bit, before getting emotional again. This stranger grabbed me, hugged me tight, and simple whispered “Congratulations my dear. This is a big deal. And I am so proud of you.” To this day, I think about that woman often. She didn’t even know me and yet I really do think she had an immense amount of pride in her heart for me that day. It’s one of the principal reminders of why I run, that kindness from strangers like her and countless fellow runners and spectators that help me to remember how powerful running can be.
After that, I was hooked. I ran the Chicago Marathon. I was weeks away from the Washington D.C. marathon before tearing my MCL in a pickup basketball game. I re-ran LA with the members of Magis Service Organization at Loyola Marymount. I ran local 5ks and 10ks, half marathons from San Diego to Albuquerque, I was on fire. When I moved to South America, running didn’t stop.
But overtime, the running bug faded. Life got busy, and my excuses not to lace up were many, until at last I just stopped running. I don’t admit it much, but here I’ll say it again: It has been embarrassing and incredibly frustrating. Running was such a valuable part of my life, and I abandoned it. I used to pride myself on being a marathon runner and I silently endure my frustration at having to admit that’s no longer the case and now I’m just someone who has ran a marathon. There’s a world of difference in those two statements.
I’ve heard it said again and again, the journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, and yesterday, surrounded by an incredible 50 odd friends and loved ones that are connected to Magis, the group I discussed earlier, I felt like I was vulnerable enough to take that step. Running in the “Every Angelino Counts” Homeboy Industries 5k, I was wrapped up in this incredible community of friends, students I work with, mentors, and complete strangers that are the definition of my LA.
We run for the same reason we travel: To find ourselves. But it’s more than that. We find inspiration in the efforts of people whose names we’ll never come to know. The guy with a debilitating disability, painfully fighting through each step of the race. The random spectator clapping and high fiving each and every runner. And we find inspiration where we often least expect it: In ourselves. That little voice within that pushes you forward when you’re tired and just want to stop pushes you through the finish line and before you can even recover beckons you further with one simple question: What’s next?
A big thanks to the thousands of Angelinos who reminded me that though I travel often and enjoy it immensely, LA, and in particular, the social justice community in LA- is where I am so happy to find myself firmly rooted. Thanks Homeboy, thanks Magis, and thanks to those countless strangers hitting the pavement alongisde me. People with complex, unique, and inspiring stories that I may never come to know but got to imagine a bit as we ran together yesterday. We’ll see you at a future race, dare I say even a 10k and soon enough, another half marathon or marathon?
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