Relearning life lessons while running a marathon
By Michael Kunz
My apologies to Robert Fulghum, who wrote the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. For a while the book’s opening essay was quoted so often it almost seemed trite. It wasn’t and isn’t. So having run my first marathon and achieved my goal of a Boston Marathon qualifying time, what did I learn?
But I was reminded of a lot of things I think I already knew.
It’s all grace. The author of Ecclesiastes writes, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” I didn’t make the qualifying standard by running faster. Rather, I was fortunate enough to still be running at an age whose qualifying time slowed down enough for me to catch. The knee problems at 40 weren’t permanent. The herniated disk at 50 improved. The rising PSA count wasn’t cancer. The innumerable close encounters with cars while running never actually made impact. I still have a job that pays for these expensive whims. The conditions on race day were ideal. To accomplish most things we desire in life, I know planning and effort are important prerequisites. Yet the bottom line is: it’s still just grace.
Journey with those who know the way well. In their wisdom, the race sponsors—I ran in the PF Chang Rock & Roll Marathon in Phoenix—recruit experienced “pacers” who have run many marathons. They know exactly the pace a particular finishing time requires. Rookies hoping to run that time run too fast at the beginning and die too soon. The pacer I followed ticked off the miles like clockwork—never missing a milestone by more than a couple seconds. I just had to stay behind him.
There is strength in community. I value the solitude of early morning runs, but when trying to accomplish what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction” it was immensely comforting and encouraging to be one of 5,000-plus headed down the same path. I spent the first 20 miles in the midst of a group of about 30 runners all intent on the same finishing time. The energy generated by running together made most of the race seem easy. And when doubts surfaced about the sanity of the whole endeavor, knowing I was part of an extended community of friends wishing me success made the commitment seem worthwhile. Finally there was my wife, Ellen, whose presence in the city where I raced meant that even if I didn’t accomplish a particular goal, life was still going to be fun.
“Das Leben ist schwer.” Life is tough. It’s what I used to tell my daughter, Katie, when, as a child, she would whine about the unfairness of it all. Community can make much of life easier, but “the wall” still hits at mile 22. That is the point where there is no longer a spare molecule of glycogen left in the muscle cells. The only way to continue is to sacrifice the substance of the body that is not so easily expended. Each new step requires a re-commitment to lift a stubborn and recalcitrant body part that refuses to budge. It helps to know that the end, though not yet in sight, is at least close enough to strive for. It’s also good for me to remember that mine was a temporary and self-chosen hardship. This is the life experience of many with physical, mental, emotional or financial challenges.
Life-lists are not life. A week after qualifying I went for my first post-marathon run. I had donated blood two days before, so there was no temptation to run for speed. After days of rain, it was early-Saturday-morning quiet—cold, crisp, clear with the sun just rising over the camphor trees on Fresno’s Huntington Boulevard. Where the trees parted at the boulevard’s end, there was one sudden and stunning view of the Sierra Nevada, at that moment vividly living out its Spanish name “snowy range.” It is simple joy to move smoothly and quietly through such a world under your own power. And I remembered that this is really why I run.
Still, I am glad I ran that marathon!
Michael Kunz is AIMS Professor in Science at Fresno Pacific University, Fresno, Calif. He hopes to run in the 2011 Boston Marathon. This essay was distributed by FPU as part of its Scholars Speak series.
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