This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Cheers to the winners of this year’s St. Louis marathon and related events, now called Go! St. Louis. It takes grit, nerve and a lot of sweat to lead the field. But I found equal inspiration elsewhere during the race — at the back of the pack.
In sports, as in most things, glory falls on the winners. Take the steely Kenyan speedsters who’ve dominated distance events for years. I saw them once as they flew past the finish line of the Boston Marathon, pushing the limits of human endurance. As a jogger who had never entered a race, I was in awe.
This year, in my fourth St. Louis half marathon, the leaders were again impressive. They steamed past at less than half my pace, striding toward the finish line as thousands of runners were still outward bound.
We at the back of the pack — all shapes, sizes and ages — shouted encouragement. We admire the tremendous effort they invest turning their talent into success. Our challenges are of a different nature. Common sense says we’ll never win this or any other race. Uncommon determination goads us to do our best anyway. Odd to realize, but it takes courage to lose.
One saying advises that anything worth doing is worth doing well. The back of the pack is proof of another truth: Even if you can’t do a thing well, sometimes it’s worth doing anyway.
To get to the starting line, we’ve logged miles of training in winter’s chill. Conditioning our rebellious bodies is just part of the problem. Harder to master is that voice inside the head that says it can’t be done.
Come race weekend, that voice reminds us that we could have – should have – trained harder. It recalls the quizzical looks of strangers, who clearly wondered why we were bothering to train at all. It notes that races start at 7 a.m. and suggests we might just as well stay in bed.
As the race starts, some of us are feeling what one woman’s t-shirt expressed in a hand-written, heartfelt message: 18 weeks ago this seemed like a good idea.
Some runners work through their jitters by talking with friends. But conversation shortens as mileage lengthens. Sooner or later, slogging along amid the muffled cadence of tennis shoes hitting pavement, all runners are alone with their thoughts.
Mine went like this:
Here are more than 9,000 people who set an ambitious personal goal – even if that goal was just to finish. Here are people who learned to temper ambition with reality and yet to persevere. Here is proof that with grit, nerve and sweat even those at the back of the pack can accomplish things that seem impossible.