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Chicken Soup For The Soul: Runners

The following story by writer Matt Fitzgerald appears in the book Chicken Soup for The Soul: Runners, and is reproduced here with permission.

The Circle Is the Only Geometry

I’ve learned that finishing a marathon isn’t just an athletic achievement. It’s a state of mind; a state of mind that says anything is possible. John Hanc

Dawn had just lifted the covers off a gray, drizzly Monday morning in April 1983 when my mom came to my room and, not quite literally, dragged me from bed. After a quick breakfast the whole family piled into Dad’s Saab and we travelled two hours southwest to the Boston suburb of Hopkinton, where the 87th Boston Marathon would begin at noon.

In Hopkinton we hooked up with our friend Dori, a local who knew the area inside and out and guided us to three or four good cheering points along the course while Dad, running his first marathon as a numberless bandit, made the 26.2-mile eastward journey to Copley Square on foot. We reached the first viewing spot in time to see the race leaders, already far ahead of our patriarch, among whom were the legendary Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit. The frontrunner, local boy Greg Meyer, sailed by faster than I could sprint. We were awestruck.

Our final stop was Cleveland Circle, at 25 miles. We waited and waited. At last Dad came, in what looked like a slow-motion replay of his previous stride, his massive size-14 feet landing heavily, his shoulders sagging, his weary eyes staring a thousand miles ahead. As planned, my two brothers and I broke from the curb and jogged with him over the last mile to the finish line, like three Navy cruisers flanking an aircraft carrier.

It was the coolest thing ever. Being cheered along by a seemingly endless, six-deep gauntlet of shouting spectators was like sudden fame. And although we’d never heard of Bill Rodgers or Joan Benoit until that day, our impressionable ten- to fourteen-year-old minds made instant heroes of them.

The next morning at breakfast Josh, the eldest, announced that he was going to start running, and so did I. After school we ran our dad’s favorite 6-mile route on mostly dirt roads surrounding our home. Two days later, we did it again. Twenty-seven years later, I’m still running.

Only last year, however, did I get around to running the entire Boston Marathon myself. I meant to do it sooner. I tried to do it sooner. But there were problems. Always problems. In 2001 I got injured two weeks before the race. The next four years were lost to various other injuries.

At last I made it to Hopkinton healthy, but the curse followed me. My right shoe was scraped off my foot by the toe of a runner behind me just half a mile into the race. I got it back on, but my relief was short-lived. Around the 10K mark I felt a twinge in my right hamstrings, and the pain grew steadily worse thereafter. At 12 miles, with a jolt of panic, I felt the first hint of a soreness destined to become an agony in both thighs. Less than halfway and already my shock absorbers were blown!

As the pain in my thighs worsened, I began to look ahead to the 16-mile mark — where my parents, Josh, his wife, and even Dori awaited my triumphant passage — as a potential place to drop out. (Only my younger brother, Sean, was missing from the original crew; he followed my race online at home in California.) But when I spotted my personal cheering section in the crowd, my conscience was seared by a sense of obligation to honor their support and I kept running, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.

Right away I regretted my decision. Despite my best efforts at mind over matter, my pace continued to slow, until I could not run — I mean could not run — another step. I switched from a rigid shuffle to a herky-jerky walk just shy of the 23-mile mark. It brought amazingly little relief. I now doubted my ability to evenwalk to the finish line.

I was more miserable than I had ever been in any previous race, and believe me, that’s saying something. Each step was a thousand daggers poked deeply into the tender flesh of my thighs.

On top of everything else, the air was freezing — 47 degrees, to be precise — and my body produced far less heat while walking than running. I shivered like Leonardo di Caprio in the last scene of Titanic under the flimsy space blanket I had snatched from a First Aid station. I no longer cared at all about finishing. If a concerned onlooker had offered me a ride back to Dori’s house I would have seized the offer without shame, like an emaciated desert crawler gobbling pig slop.

Offering rides was the last thing on the minds of the spectators who thickly lined the last miles of the Boston Marathon course along Commonwealth Avenue. Instead they hollered encouragement as though their lives depended on the performance of every runner. I drew special attention from the crowd because of my obvious plight, which only deepened the humiliation of my failure. Just leave me alone! I thought.

Then, all of a sudden, I found myself at Cleveland Circle, where my brothers and I had broken from the curb to guide our dad home so long ago, and I realized that, despite earlier doubts, this awful nightmare would eventually end. A slight diminishment of the agony in my thighs suggested that I might even be able to jog the last mile and get it over with that much faster. As I contemplated giving it a try I realized that discarding my space blanket and breaking into stride might appear rather theatrical given the amount of attention being heaped upon me. I wished I could attempt the experiment unnoticed, but that was impossible, so I sheepishly scanned the faces in the throng on the left side of the course for the inevitable reaction as I dashed the blanket to the road and began jogging.

My eyes met those of three frat-boy types in baseball caps who were among those urging me personally toward the finish, almost belligerent in their support. And as I seemingly responded to their urgings by giving them exactly what they demanded of me, they pumped their fists in the air, high-fived, and, through exultant laughter, shouted, “YEAH!”, repeating the behaviors they had undoubtedly exhibited when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in game seven of the 2004 American League Championship Series. My pathetic little comeback seemed to have made them as happy as they had been in their entire lives. I had to laugh too.

My dad is fond of saying, “The circle is the only geometry.” He means that, throughout life, we continually return to the beginning. I recalled this expression when, on the exact spot where I became a runner as a boy, I became a runner again as a nearly middle-aged man. Until that moment I was filled with disappointment over having failed to run as fast as I wanted to run, not just in this marathon but throughout my running life. But in that moment I was reminded of what a blessing it is to be able to run at all, and what a wonderful gift my dad had given me on a drizzly Monday in April 1983.