Bring 30,000 plus people together in one place to run a TwentySixPointTwo mile race and you have assembled an energized force of humanity unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. These aren’t spectators, they are participants and a force of nature. The Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, embodies its name as “The People’s Marathon”; that’s an apt descriptor, because this group “owns it”. But there are also spectators there, countless thousands of them rattling cowbells, hoisting banners, waving signs and cheering their lungs out for individuals they know and most they don’t. I was right there with them.
It’s the individual runners that amaze me. They come in every possible human form and they are there to accomplish their goal of running, walking, hobbling or pedaling their way across TwentySixPointTwo miles of historical terrain. Why do they subject themselves to such a grueling undertaking? And what motivates them keep going until the end? The power of the human spirit fuels the runners, but they each needed a reason to run; without a clear and compelling reason to start in the first place, it would be awfully hard to find the determination to finish.
For some, I suspect the reason was purely personal; setting and achieving the goal, testing their endurance, or simply being able to say they’ve done something extremely grueling that most others can’t — or more likely won’t — ever attempt. However, from observing the runners and the highly-engaged crowd, I suspect most had a reason to be there that’s bigger than themselves. In some cases the reasons were invisible, in some they were subtle and in others they were flamboyant. Everyone had their own style.
Those who ran with a purpose bigger than themselves inspired the crowd and the crowd inspired them. There were ‘teams’ running for family members or injured service members and some were even pushing those very treasured people before them in specialized carts. There were participants without legs propelling themselves impossibly forward with a combination of upper-body strength and sheer will. Some runners carried flags, others wore themed running gear and many had customized shirts creatively emblazoned with their purpose. My wife and I were there to cheer on three extraordinary people who were running for three others who are “gone but never forgotten”; Sunday’s TwentySixPointTwo experience cemented my belief that is indeed true.
I staked out the perfect spot to watch this mass of humanity press toward their goal; it was less than a quarter of a mile before the finish line and just after the course turns onto a hill — yes, a fairly steep hill — strategically positioned on the course by the Marines as the final obstacle before the finish line at the Marine Corps Memorial, adjoining Arlington National Cemetery. That final hill brought out every possible facial expression of anguish and determination, plus more than a few brief collapses, only to watch those runners get up (some with aid of Marines), buoyed by the boisterous support of the crowd, and keep moving to the finish. It was extraordinary to watch; even more extraordinary was the pride I felt well up inside me when first one, then two, then three of the runners I was there to support arrived at that hill, dug deep and pressed to the finish. I was thoroughly awed by their effort to conquer TwentySixPointTwo miles in pursuit of their goal. Mission(s) Accomplished!
What you couldn’t see at this seminal moment, but you could feel, were the months of training that preceded TwentySixPointTwo miles of ultimate effort. Whether running countless miles in a dusty compound in Bagram, Afghanistan, somewhere in humid Africa, or on the high plains of eastern New Mexico, the runners I know poured every ounce of their training into achieving their collective goal during this TwentySixPointTwo miles of effort. With an ear-to-ear grin on her face afterward, one of our runners put it this way: “That was…….real hard!” But the outcome on this day validated the considerable personal sacrifices they made to indelibly honor the memories of fallen team members and dear friends.
Some limit the value of their lives by living only for themselves. Yet others maximize the moments of their lives by living for something bigger than themselves.