The Oak Ridge Boys sing about an extraordinary ordinary day. I had one on Sunday, October 8, 2006. Keith Landis had called me the night before to invite me to watch him run his first marathon. I have been watching Keith run since 1989, sometimes from the same race, so it seemed an easy decision. I went.
On that chilly Ohio morning, I knew nothing about marathons and didn’t really fathom the length being anything extraordinary. For fifteen years, our races focused on the 5K, the ol’ 3.1 miler. Sheesh, no one ever knew how long a 5K was. And to make it worse, that silly little ‘point one.’
Interested Observer: “Why are you running?”
Runner: “I am training for a 5K.”
Ignorant Observer: “How long is a 5K?”
Runner: “3.1 miles.”
Irritating Observer: “Oh I can’t even run to the fridge! Ha! [Sometimes slaps back] Why is there a point one?”
Now I have a choice. I can either explain the K stands for the European Kilometer, which Americans only use to measure the distance of this one single race. And then to equal the amount of K’s to miles, we have to add the ‘point one.’
Or I could shrug and say, “I don’t know.” Saying, “I don’t know” admits ignorance, which I am not but I am also not one to explain everything to people. So I shrug and perform one of my now famous quirks: Suddenly change the subject.
I don’t know that I ever particularly enjoyed running. And I hated talking about the fact I didn’t really enjoy it. I just ran. I liked being outside. I liked the road. I liked searching the ditch for random animals. I liked being inside my head, alone. And I liked stopping. Keith once told me the only way we would stop a run early was for lightning. So I looked for lightning.
My Grandpa would have answered thusly:
Interested Observer: “What is your favorite part of the run?”
Grandpa: “The part at the end where I stop.”
On October 8, 2006, I watched Keith start, and then three hours and fourteen minutes later, I watched him finish. 3:14 is a very, very good marathon time for a man 30 years old. But Keith was disappointed. He had missed the cut off for Boston by four minutes. On the way home, he dissected the race the way I dismantle a Twix bar, mile by mile, ingredient by ingredient, trying to find four minutes he could have had back.
I wasn’t thinking about Twix. Believe it or not, I was thinking about the people at the end of the race, finishing long after Keith. They were slow. Some of them were big around the belly. None looked like athletes let alone runners. I watched them as they plodded by and shuffled to a stop across the finish line. And I watched the volunteers slip medals over their necks. Medals. Little pieces of art which symbolized a finished race. Keith had one- but he did well! But his was the same one the men at the end received.
The medal could have been in the shape of a fish hook. I was caught.
The next day after work, I slipped on a very old pair of running shoes. And out I went. For the next six years, I was a ‘runner.’ I ran five marathons, five 50K’s, a handful of Half- Marathons, a couple 10 milers, and a selection of 5K’s. Although my first marathon went very well, the rest of my running did not. I was constantly signing up for races believing the registration would be my spark to get into shape.
After that first Cleveland Marathon, where I lost 50 pounds over seven months and truly transformed my life, I never got back to basics. I have run more races out of shape than in. The last marathon was in Philadelphia, the same day my cross country coach was inducted into his high school hall of fame. The only reason I was able to finish that race was because at the 14 mile marker my wife said, “finish it for Coach Knoll.”
I finished that race by the grace of God in 4 hours and 28 minutes. Since then, I have set out to run a lot of races, maybe 10 total, but none have touched anything resembling an accomplishment other than a finish. Sure, I’ve got those medals. But maybe I graduated somewhere along the line from the medal to something like Keith, wondering where I could take four minutes off my time. Hek, I am not looking for four minutes but forty. And that first marathon to celebrate turning 30 years old is now approaching fifteen years ago. And sticking with a number theme… that fifty pounds lost is now close to seventy five gained.
Fast forward to Monday, April 18, 2022. A young man from New London that I practically watched grow up in running completed the Boston Marathon. Despite a busy day at work I found myself following his progress on the Boston App. I am super proud of him, but also super itchy.
I want to run again. This November will mark ten years since that chilly but beautiful November day in Philadelphia. I want to go back. Does Philadephia mark the way towards Boston? That would be putting the cart before the horse and the medal before the race, but oh how I would like to try.
And that, perhaps, will make all the difference.