I am cynical about many things. This is a sampling of things that I am cynical about:
- long-standing traditions;
- charitable organizations;
- running clubs;
- unbridled optimism
Here is a sampling of things that I am not at all cynical about:
Yes, these seems quite antithetical, and let me assure you, an appreciation of enthusiastic, optimistic people attempting to better themselves by running for four-plus hours did not come naturally. I view running not as an activity but as as a transportation method for the car-less and late and/or a defence mechanism in any threatening circumstance for people exactly like me.
I’d always quietly thought that these people who dedicate hours and hours, day after day, to just running were slightly insane. I would come across them on Sunday mornings. As I trudged off to nurse a hangover with black coffee and bacon fat, there they’d be, gathered outside the Running Room, bouncing from foot to foot as if they couldn’t think of anything more exciting than just running. I don’t think I resented them, I was just confused and assumed I had very little in common with these people. If you can muster that level of dedication to something, why not pick, like, tennis? Rec-league basketball? Something with a finite endpoint and variety beyond merely transporting oneself to a relatively nearby location and back again, while becoming very sweaty. And then, ultimately, this was all training for more running when the next marathon came around. It all seemed like misplaced energy, and rather naive.
(I was only 23 at the time, so forgive the uncalled-for skepticism towards people doing nothing but trying to stay healthy.)
Sometimes, you need to be forced to confront preconceived notions so they can be proven wrong. While working at the Winnipeg Free Press in 2010, I was assigned to cover the Manitoba Marathon. Until that point, I had assumed that sports writing was ostensibly about covering competition – the people involved, the results, and, on rare occasion, the meaning behind it. But marathon coverage was different. It was just about the people. The competition, the deeper meaning – even the results – were internal to these people.
And god, what people.
The first paragraph I ever wrote about a marathon came from a story about Tracy Garbutt, a 38-year-old blind runner who began losing his vision at age 12. Reading it, I can recall my cynicism dying a surprisingly quick death:
The Manitoba Marathon website claims there are “14,000 stories waiting out there for you,” as each entrant strives to reach a personal goal, whether it’s to set a personal best or just complete the race. A spectator might see one runner’s story in the relief, joy, or exhaustion on their face as they cross the finish line.* In Tracy Garbutt’s case, however, they’ll see his story in a length of surgical tubing that tethers him to the person in front of him.
(*Note: I had been writing newspaper copy for, oh, a month at his point. I think I can get a pass for the treasure trove of clichés.)
How could I roll my eyes at a man who is almost completely blind, running while tethered to his friend? A man who works at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, hosts speaking engagements, does the dishes, mows the lawn, and trains for marathons. (And was extraordinarily nice to a bumbling, nervous rookie reporter.)
Next, I spoke briefly to Hortense Lamoureux, who was preparing for her fifth half-marathon at 86 years old.
Then the family of Andy Wiebe, who came together from all across the country to run together. They hadn’t all been together in two years.
By the time I arrived at the University of Manitoba at 5:30 am that Sunday, I ended up searching the crowd for these strangers I’d grown to admire. I marveled as kids like Megan McClymont ran the Mini Mites Fun Run at an hour so early I wondered what the law says about putting 5-Hour Energy on your six-year-old’s Froot Loops.
I wandered around the finish area for the next five hours as a steady stream of people ran, jogged or strolled, red-faced and sweaty, into the arms of friends, family, and each other. Used up, sore, out-of-breath, smiling. I was just some out-of-shape asshole with a notepad, and it was all I could do to at least help document a story or two. Larry “SuperSlow” Linnick, running a half-marathon 10 days after an umbilical hernia operation. Andrew Rempel, wearing a cape emblazoned with a picture of his father, because he was “glad he’s still with us.”
Then there was Ralph Egger. A 54-year-old Albertan, he was one of the first people through the finish line, completing the wheelchair marathon in under two hours. Fired up and almost foaming at the mouth with excitement, I went to meet him near some medical tents. His elbow was torn up from falling earlier in the race, but he barely seemed to notice.
Which turned out to be fairly unsurprising after speaking with his wife, Irene. Ralph had been struck by a drunk driver years before, destroying much of the lower half of his body. His legs had been rebuilt with seven pounds of metal, forcing him out of his job and into a wheelchair for two and a half years.
He took up wheelchair racing, and began travelling around North America competing in races. As of 2010, he had raised $47,000 for the Arthritis Society and Wheelchair Sports Alberta.
What I didn’t include in the Free Press story was that the accident left Ralph with brain damage, including short-term memory loss. In all likelihood, he wouldn’t remember winning the 2010 Manitoba Marathon’s wheelchair marathon. Yet to this day I don’t think I’d met a happier person. I don’t know to what extent he was aware of the last nine years of his life, if it was merely an amalgam of moments that don’t stick, yet he’d spent those years pushing himself and helping others. Could there be a truer form of altruism than raising money without even knowing you’re doing it?
These are the people you meet at marathons.
These are the people who gathered in Hopkinton, Massachusetts on Monday morning. These are the people whose families were waiting for them in the bleachers near Copley Square. These are the people who had a moment of personal triumph stolen from them for reasons we don’t know and likely will not be able to comprehend.
Obviously, that loss doesn’t compare to losing a leg or a loved one. (Or both.) But as I scoured Twitter on Monday afternoon and the gruesome photos came flooding in, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of runners stopped only a few miles from reaching the climax of their own story.
I thought of Tracy Garbutt. I thought of Hortense Lamoureux, Andy Wiebe, SuperSlow. I thought of Ralph Egger.
I thought of people that taught me lessons in optimism, hope and dedication. Much-needed lessons in how to stop being an asshole.
Without that experience, the events of Monday afternoon could have slotted in nicely to a cynic’s view of a broken world full of negative outcomes. Instead, I read stories of marathoners running straight to Massachusetts General to give blood. Of a man giving his medal to a grieving runner. Of the father of two dead sons rushing to tie makeshift tourniquets on dismembered victims.
Even in the midst of something so terrible, a marathon became an example of the average person’s capability for greatness.
How could I possibly be cynical about that?