Not long ago I read This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women. I finished this book on the flight home from Greece where I had just completed my first marathon. On that flight, I decided to take the editor’s challenge to write my own essay on a core belief of mine. I began writing what follows and have adapted beyond the guidelines of the normal essay construct to incorporate my marathon experience. Here it goes:
I believe in love. I’m not talking about the love of Hollywood movies where everyone lives happily ever after. But marathon love. The kind given to strangers in a fleeting moment as they run by, whose effect lasts for hours. And the kind between friends that is irrational and lasts a lifetime. I believe kindness is the expression of love and this is something all humans are capable of giving in abundance; we just have to tap into it. And I believe we have a moral obligation to tap into it as often as we can and spread love with reckless abandon. I also believe that receiving love allows us to accomplish things far greater than we imagined possible.
I recently ran a marathon where people came out of their rural Greek communities to give all of the runners love. Children, the elderly, teenagers all dutifully stood along the race route for most of the journey from the city of Marathon to the city of Athens clapping and yelling “bravo”.
It was love that brought them out there to give strength to the runners. Children gave us olive branches and high fives. The elderly looked us in the eye and reminded us that we could do it. They showered us with love and that made a big difference to every one of the 17,000 runners on the course that morning. Their love was genuine: with eye contact and hearty pats on the back as we passed by. I tried to thank as many people as I could for the encouragement they gave. The best response to love is…of course… more love.
I can vividly see one face, a man seated in a low, blue camping chair who upon hearing my gratitude responded with, “no, thank you.” For miles I contemplated his response. Was he grateful for my gratitude? Was he grateful that I was commemorating the run of Pheidippides, a long dead soldier who in 490 BC brought word to the Athenians that the Persians were defeated thus changing the tides of the Greco-Persian war? Was he grateful I was visiting his country and taking part of a long honored tradition? Or was he just expressing love?
It was love that the runners gave to each other. In the beginning our love was jovial and chatty. As the miles stretched on and the fatigue set in, the runners offered each other encouraging words about the course and our progress. People shared tips, helped the injured get to the medics that lined the road, or offered band aids, Vaseline, or food. We may be technically competing against each other but we were all in it together and that camaraderie was born out of love.
I ran for most of the race with my two dear friends who had traveled to Greece to meet me and do this crazy endeavor. They both are stronger runners than I am. But to them, running together was more important than anything else. And so they ran at a pace that matched mine and we all ran together, or near each other anyway, for practically all of the race. In the rare instance when one of them needed to stop, I didn’t think twice about stopping. We were in it together. Love drove these decisions.
At a point long into the race I fell back further and further from my friends. I had to stop and address a terrible blister and an overwhelming feeling that I needed to puke. By that point in the race, momentum was all that was keeping us moving and my friends had to continue on – something I totally understood and encouraged. In the brief time that I was stopped, several runners stopped to check on me and give me love. Complete strangers, with accents from all over the world, stopped to see what I needed and how they could help. It was their love that reminded me that I was able to keep going.
I knew my slowing pace and brief stop meant I wouldn’t run the end of the race with my friends but I also knew if I didn’t take care of my body I may not finish at all. I ran alone for about an hour, but it felt like twenty. I drew strength from the love the crowd showered upon us and just kept putting one foot in front of the other.
People say a marathon is a test of not only your physical endurance but also your mental endurance as well. I reached my mental edge and it wasn’t pretty. For a brief moment (or slightly longer. ahem.), I hated everyone and everything. I methodically went down the list of all the people and things I hated. When I exhausted my list I started over again from the top. With every step I willed myself to keep going, despite my hatred for…..well…..everything under the sun.
As I turned a corner, about a half a mile from the finish line, I saw my friends standing on the edge of the course scanning the runners for my face. They had stopped running and waited for me so we could all finish together. They down-played how long they had been standing there but I know it had to have been at least 20 minutes and likely longer.
As they rejoined the current of runners, Megan reached out her hand to me. As I took her hand and she took Dom’s, I was overwhelmed with love. For them, from them. I was renewed with strength. We ran together, excited for the accomplishment we were about to achieve. My two friends are incredible people so their being so loving toward their friend isn’t surprising. But it was profoundly moving and affected me deeply.
Not long after we reunited, we came across our friend Leigh who had dutifully stood watch for us for hours. She began to cheer wildly upon seeing us. She was cheering not only for our success but also for the love she had witnessed from afar. For she was tracking our progress via GPS. She saw Dom and Megan’s progress on the course halt until I caught up to them and then start again, heading toward the finish line together. It was love that brought Leigh to Greece – love of her friends to support them in this hard endeavor. It was love that made her cheer so excitedly as we passed by.
When I think about what it takes to run a marathon, the first thing that comes to mind is love. Sure, not everyone has a friend on the sidelines cheering her on. Not everyone has friends who literally stop their race so we can finish together. But that wasn’t the only marathon love I received that day.
I received the love of hundreds of strangers who cheered me on either from within the race or its sidelines. It reminds me that love is easy to give. Sometimes it is yelling to a stranger that they have it in them to finish. Sometimes it is helping them off the course when they don’t.
I believe we all have it in us to give others love like they are running a marathon. No matter who they are and what they are doing. The Beatles had it right: all you need is love.