One just never knows what life has in store for them.
Imagine you are retiring on Friday, and the day before you hang it up, you discover something about yourself you never knew. Instead of stopping, you become the most successful person in the world in your field. For some people, fate has a way of stepping up in the nick of time.
After a successful running career at lower distances globally, Norwegian Grete Waitz was retiring to her school-teacher profession. Before that, however, she entered the New York City Marathon at the last moment, after encouragement from her husband. Because of the late entry, her bib number wasn’t in the official program. Grete later stated that they treated New York as a second honeymoon, and the race was another thing to do while in the city. She knew little about marathons and had never run more than 13 miles at a time in her life. So, the 26.2 miles would be nearly impossible. According to the New York Times: “She said the last 10 miles of the race were agony, and she was so angry at her husband that when she crossed the finish line, she tore off her shoes and flung them at him. ‘I’ll never do this stupid thing again,’ she yelled.”
All distance runners can relate to that feeling, and it’s kind of cool to note a high-caliber athlete had the sensation of us average runners. Wait a minute! What? Never mind. It turns out Grete won the New York City marathon that day, and by the way, set a women’s world record in doing so. That, of course, is “greatness” because the “average” never experiences the impossible.
The experience hooked her on the marathon, and she trained, set more records for years to come, and inspired people worldwide. Getting hooked is how it works for many of us; it doesn’t matter how unbearable it gets, running slips into one’s soul. She won the New York City Marathon nine times and set the world record many times. She won too many events to mention here.
Impressive stuff, sure, but more inspiring were the words spoken about her:
“Humility and athleticism made her a singularly graceful champion.”—New York Times
“What will endure forever is that she was able to balance a competitive career with the most gracious lifestyle and a character that emanated goodwill.”—Joan Benoit Samuelson
“Every sport should have a true champion like Grete, a woman with such dignity and humanity and modesty.”—George Hirsch, chairman, New York Road Runners
“She is our sport’s towering legend.”—Mary Wittenberg, president, New York Road Runners
It’s one thing to be a tremendous athlete, but as everyone knows, that adjective doesn’t always or often extend beyond the playing fields. I take note when I hear the words: Humility, gracious, goodwill, dignity, humanity, modesty, and legend. A thing difficult to admit is Grete finished the New York City marathon in less than half the time it took me to do it. Oh well, I can live with that just knowing I traveled the ground she made hallowed.
Tailored to Win
My goal for each marathon has been to finish the race and live to talk about it. I know that sounds a little overdramatic, but it fits the purpose of answering the frequent question, “What time do you expect to finish?” Of course, there were stretches during the 15 marathons I ran that such a dire eventuality crossed my mind. The fantastic news is I finished each one, and the feat gives me the same pride I gained from being on the Major League stage.
But even though satisfied with the outcomes, sometimes in sports, a win feels more like a loss. For example, it was an enormous gut-check from mile 17 in my New York City marathon. That is not unusual because it comes in all marathons, but it came much earlier than expected this time. Typically, I will not walk any until mile 23, if at all, but there I was, spent already. I did not spill the guts during the race, but after was a different story. I realize it’s the price the athlete occasionally pays. Like other times in my sporting life, I just knew I had to find a way after everything in me, except my heart, said stop. Let me go back to the beginning.
I was sure everything was in place to set my personal best time. Even though I read the course was challenging, I thought it was there for the taking. The weather was perfect, and even with 55,000 runners, the first mile was the only time maneuvering was an issue. The starting atmosphere was electric with speakers blaring “New York, New York” from Old Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra. We began over the Verrazano Bridge with incredible views of New York City to the left and right. I was ecstatic as much as anyone with having 26.2 miles to run can be.
We entered Brooklyn with the streets lined with fans six and seven deep—so cool. The first 13 miles went smoothly, and the city and crowds were fabulous. I could not even hear my music through my headphones at some points because of the crowd noise. It reminded me of playing in front of Major League crowds, and it felt good. I had every reason to keep rocking the race and enjoy it. It just didn’t happen.
At mile 15, I felt something was not right, because I was putting out more energy than I should have at that point. The athlete in me held out hope I would come around, as sometimes happens, but things did not follow my wish. My spirit couldn’t get over the lack of energy for long.
It was on to Queens and the most taxing part, over the bridge to Manhattan. It seemed a never-ending stretch that beat me up. It was on to the Bronx and back to Manhattan and Central Park. I tried every trick to divert my mind from feeling miserable, but none worked for long. Meeting up with family members at mile markers 17 and 19 was some saving grace, but I needed a divine intervention.
If it were training and not the day I had been anticipating for so long, I would have packed it in early. Athletes know some days are not theirs, but my athletic spirit does not allow quitting in a game unless it is the only alternative. As implied, the one bit of optimism comes from knowing I have been in similar troublesome situations. I recall being 14 years old, and my once rocket arm left me overnight. The big-league dream did not seem promising after becoming stuck with a second baseman’s arm at such a young age. In another instance, zero college baseball programs showed interest in me when I graduated from high school. Once again, the dream seemed a bridge too far. With the odds against me in the race, I refer to the situations that taught me there is a way, and I must find it, and I will not let it end before doing everything I can to get what I set out to do.
The competitor in me knows down is not out, and I must keep moving forward. I try one of many self-pep talks that goes like this: “There will be times one gets to a hill, and a choice is necessary—run up, walk, or stop. The competitor does not choose that third alternative.”
I eventually finished! It was a win, but why did I not feel better about it? The answer lies with the belief that I should have done better. After the race, I reviewed everything and tried to figure out where things went wrong. I still don’t know. I refused to make excuses. In a glass-half-full way, having to persevere through the physical and mental anguish for nine miles was an enormous victory. You see, being a winner is about overcoming the heartache of sub-par performances. If I didn’t consider myself one, I would have quit. I knew better was possible and immediately knew it would not be my last marathon.
I took these lessons from the race to be better the next time:
- Never take anything for granted.
- Explore your past to overcome complications.
- To quit is not an option.
- A setback is only one if you do nothing about it.
- Failure does not end dreams.
The New York City Marathon was a formidable test, and after was the time to find another mountain to climb. Thankfully, my fighting spirit lives on.