Written by Annette Coussan
It can be really tough to watch people you love work hard, without receiving much of a reward for their effort. We all know people who have given up on goals, dreams, and life, but we also know people who have NEVER given up, despite the reward or lack thereof. Recently, I participated in a half-marathon with a friend, who is recovering from a serious spinal injury. Her right leg is stiff with only a hint of a bend in the knee. Her right foot has no feeling. Her stride is full of effort. She had zero chance of winning the race, and barely a chance to finish the 13.1 mile course within the seven hour allotted time.
This wasn’t her first half-marathon. Last month she competed in one. It has been her number one recovery goal throughout the year. She had even gained national attention in her pursuit. You may have already read about her or seen her on T.V.; however, this race was different. She was under the radar with no expectations placed on her. There were no sponsors, no reporters, no pres, and no preparation either. She had spent the last month recovering from the previous race, and she was working on exercises that could eventually help her regain the bend in her knee, not training for another 13.1 mile walk.
This race was going to be tough. She started at the front of the crowd of racers. In an instant, they all zoomed past her. She was left to walk in the quiet streets. It was a particularly cool March morning, and her right side balked. The right leg was more stubborn than usual that day. She’d forgotten her gloves, and her right hand battled the bite of the morning air. As I walked beside her, we crept along the streets of one of our city’s oldest neighborhoods. I commented on the bursting azaleas and the great craftsmanship of the homes. I went on and on until I finally realized how annoying my comments had become to her. While my mind had been on flowers and cute houses during that first mile, my friend was mechanically breaking down the movement of her lower back, abdomen, psoas, quad, and hamstrings. She systematically had to will the walking process to continue for one more step and another step and then another.
We spent that first hour focusing on the walking process and hoping for the temperature to rise quickly so that her body would cooperate with her mind. She had to find a manageable rhythm. She was concerned about finishing the race, not having trained adequately. Of course, I told her she could quit when she felt it necessary. She had already met her recovery goal. I didn’t want to see her in pain, and I didn’t want her to hinder any potential to get that right leg moving properly again.
She walked on. She was elated when we encountered her fellow racers again, as they eventually paralleled or lapped her. To all you well wishers, please know that my friend has immense appreciation and ever-expanding love for every, single one of you. The first couple of miles had been so very hard to push through without you. Your energy DID make a difference when we saw you again. Without your encouraging “shout-outs”, miles three to seven would have been even more trying. She is a positive, people-person, who always meets a compliment with a smile and a reciprocal compliment because that is her nature.
I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. She is hilariously sarcastic, too. You see, while my friend takes what she is doing very seriously, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Unable to look up and break her concentration to personally respond to most of the well-wishers, she would get frustrated. Later on during the race, she’d hear, “You are looking GOOD!” Under her breath she’d say, “Uh, now that’s not really true!” Then we’d crack up laughing. Others would yell in passing, “You inspire me” to which she’d mumble, “I’m sorry.” Again, laughing would ensue. Runners would call out, “You Rock” and immediately she’d say, “No, you rock!” Yes, she is sarcastic, but most importantly, she is resilient and intrinsically self-motivated with the ability to deal with her current situation without self-pity. Throughout the race, she used many techniques just “to deal”: love for life, sarcasm, silence, laughter, etc... This is simply who she is, and what she does, regardless of the spinal injury.
And it was not easy! It only got harder. I think mile 9 was the first critical, low point. It was as if she doubted if she could keep going. She questioned herself aloud, “Can I do this?” Her response was to keep walking. Not really knowing if she could finish, she had hope that things would work out. Head down, she kept going. That mile 10 sign was a relief. We briefly celebrated with a silly chant, “Mile 10, please send Hot Men!” I even posted the chant on her facebook page.
Then the real fight began. Fatigue and pain all bore down on her. Now only 3.1 miles from the finish line, she was consumed with meeting the 7 hour time limit. “Who cares?” I asked her. “What does time mean for you in this situation? It’s a limit set for runners, not someone walking with trekking poles! Take your time and don’t injure yourself.” She ignored me and kept talking about meeting her deadline. Then we found ourselves at mile marker 11.
I wish I could say the journey to mile 12 was easier, but it was more grueling. The traffic barriers had been removed, and the cars flowed freely. There were no more flat streets, crowds cheering, and water stands. The race was almost officially over, but there she was, racing to the finish. She had to trek the sidewalks outside of downtown and up to her finish line. Unpredictable angels, detours, an accumulation of crispy leaves and chunky sticks, construction, and the harsh whiz of the traffic tested her. I didn’t see the beauty of what she was doing. I saw anguish. Trying this hard sucks and I almost couldn’t stand her suffering effort any longer. But... how could I say, “Just quit!” That seemed almost offensive at this point. I couldn’t take her pain away, so I told her to keep going. I told her we were reaching a tipping point and that if she pushed a little further, we’d soon reach that mile 12 marker, where a dear friend was waiting for her.
At mile 12, walking did not become physically easier, but her spirits had been lifted. First, her old friend had joined our little crew. Second, we figured out that somehow she had made up some time and had an hour left to finish the last mile. It was very possible, rather, very likely, that she was going to meet the race cut-off time. We let her take over the contemptible sidewalks, and she did her thing. Serendipitously, with about .3 miles left, other friends joined our little crew. Now, she squeezed out her last bits of effort. As we approached the very last traffic light, which controlled four lanes of traffic, the light turned red, stopping us within mere yards from her finish. That’s when the crew ran out in the middle of traffic screaming and waving our hands. Those cars just had to stop! So, I’m sorry if we startled anyone.
And on she walked those last yards, finishing the race before the time limit with dignity and utter satisfaction with just a few of the race organizers watching. There were no fan fare, no press like the other race, just herself to answer to, to impress, and to thank. She chose to finish that race because she could. She didn’t mean to be hit by a car last year, but it happened. She didn’t mean to break her neck in that accident, but she did. This race, however, she meant to do. She chose to do, and that is powerful stuff.
Along the race route, we met other people in similar situations as my friend- people racing when it was hard, real hard, with no chance of winning. We met athletes with injuries, determined first-time runners, and exhausted people. There were a few other super humans, like my friend: a sweet woman recovering from a traumatic brain injury, and an experienced marathoner pushing her friend (in an adult-sized jogger), who obviously had mobility impairments far more severe than my friend’s. And what about the people we didn’t meet? How about the people running away from things? I’m sure the race helped exorcise many personal demons that day.
We saw U.S. veterans running with flags, and we saw people running for their beliefs and causes. For others, it may have been far more simple…an average lady, setting out to try something new, just for fun or the regular guy, just trying to get in shape. The majority of racers, like my friend, were running simply because they wanted to, not to win. Only a small percentage of the highly talented, highly trained racers actually have a shot at winning.
Win or lose, we all have the choice to race- to participate in living- either walking or running. As a counselor for college students with disabilities, I often witness that an ability or disability does not determine a successful student. Success comes to students who choose success, and to those who set a course for success. You see, many of my students are the first in their families to attend college, and they rely on federal grants to pay their tuition. My students are like my friend, “walking” against runners to the same finish line. Graduation.
These students might not know that success can be theirs, too. Maybe no one has pointed that out yet. They may have doubts, and could use some well-wishers every now and then. They may get scared when it sucks to try so hard. Encouragement. Recognition of their strengths. These things matter. They need a course, a well-planned strategy, and mile markers to keep them looking forward toward their goals, but they know that their success is ultimately up to them.
Everyone can choose to give up or keep going, even on a tough course. We can all become tough competitors, like my friend, like my students, “racing” because we can.