Thursday, July 10, 2008

Running with Heroes

When I first started running with a friend of mine for her health and to be her training partner, I never imagined where that would take me. I could never have envisioned running as many half marathons as I have, not to mention the two marathons that I said I "never" wanted to run (Note to self: NEVER is a very, very long time). I truly believe that I can't get to the finish line (that "two foot strip of real estate" per my friend Robin Adams) without a cause, a reason, or a drive that is not my own. I suppose in the grand scheme of things that "explains away" a lot of what I do: Team in Training (for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society times 2 and counting); The National Marathon to Fight Breast Cancer (AKA "26.2 with Donna"); the Blue Line 100 (a century ride benefiting the fallen law enforcement officers memorial ); Capital City Ride for Hope (a benefit century ride for the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tallahassee); and run after run and ride upon ride of training. But, when it comes right down to it, it's because of people like Jim Ellis, and the family highlighted in the August 2008 issue of Runner's World. The true heroes are the survivors - the ones who fight and fight and THEN join us on the pavement. Until they don't have to be heroes anymore, I will continue on. I can, so I do. See you on the streets.

Running with Heroes for 26.2 miles
By JIM ELLIS Special to The Sun November 03, 2006

I never possessed the mental wherewithal demanded of those who take on the marathon until six months ago when I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes - the same disease that took my uncle two years ago. I began pounding out miles all over Gainesville, Florida, and all those months of training culminated Sunday in Washington D.C. in the Marine Corps Marathon. I wish I could boast a fast time. Truth is, I was only a few hundred runners from dead last. My knee gave out around mile 15, causing me to run much slower than I expected. And now, five days after the event, I'm still in great pain. But more than 9,000 would-be marathoners, out of a field of 32,000, did drop out of the race. So regardless of how poor I perceive my finishing time to be, I still take pride in knowing that I did cover the full 26.2 miles.

The day was filled with story after story. Some sad. Some triumphant. Too many to tell. Two runners suffered heart attacks. One 60-year-old man fell over in the first mile of the race. He was released from the hospital a few days later. Unfortunately, another man, Earl Seyford, 56, suffered a cardiac arrest at the 17-mile marker and died an hour later. One tale was especially endearing. A 43-year-old father pushed his disabled teenage daughter, who was strapped into a running stroller, the entire distance of the marathon. At Hains Point, the windiest section of the marathon, four friends ran with the father/daughter team, forming a windshield. As the two neared the end of the race, the father's other daughter joined the team and the three ran across the finish line together. The girls' aunt was reported as saying, "This is their day. This is their trip to Disney." Several loved ones ran in memory of their fallen soldier. I remember one older woman running with a teenager, who I suspected to be her son. They ran with "Team Bryan" across their chests. On the back of their shirts was an image of Bryan in a uniform and beneath the image the date he died in Iraq. There was the goofy too. One man ran the marathon barefoot. Hundreds dressed in costumes. Some had funny messages painted on the back of their shirts, such as "Did I really pay for this?" One person dressed as Kermit the Frog, another as Miss Piggy. The spectators, all 120,000 of them, lined the streets of the marathon, making us all feel like rock stars. Imagine running past the U.S. Capitol or the Lincoln Memorial or the Watergate Hotel with spectators five deep holding signs and shouting your name. Children leaned into the road holding out their hand to "high five" you as you ran by. Some spectators held signs that choked me up. Maybe I'm a softy, but when I ran past an excited family, holding a sign such as "Dad, you're our hero" or "Billy, we are so proud of you," it got to me. While those signs were written for someone else, they motivated me as well. And I suspect they motivated many other runners too. Some signs were funny, such as "Run like you stole something." I stenciled my name across the front of my shirt and "For Uncle Jerry" on the back. It was so motivating to hear my name even though the person yelling it was simply reading my shirt. I would even hear "Uncle Jerry" shouted from time to time. When things got bad around mile 14 and I slowed considerably, a woman passed me and turned around and said, "Keep going. Do it for Uncle Jerry." Wow. That gave me enough juice to go another mile on my swollen knee. But by mile 15, I just could not run anymore. I was in too much pain. And the frustrating thing was, I had the stamina to keep going. I felt great on every other front. I wasn't tired, mentally or physically. I had trained for five months and had the desire to continue strong. But my knee wouldn't allow it. Runners passed me en masse as I began to limp. Speed bumps became difficult to navigate as pain would shoot up my left leg at the slightest obstacle. It was mile 23 when I heard Uncle Jerry's name for the final time. By now the bottoms of both my feet felt as though I was walking on shards of glass. The pain was everywhere. I was demoralized. The climactic ending I had dreamed of was no more. I just wanted to finish the final three miles, get back to my hotel room, crawl into bed and not come out until the next day. I felt a hand on my left shoulder. I thought a runner wanted to pass, so I shuffled to my right. The hand remained a little too long to be that of a passing runner. I looked to my left and saw a dark-skinned man with black hair. He looked to be in his forties. "Uncle Jerry would be proud," he said. For the tenth time or so that day I got a little choked up. "Thanks. I appreciate it," I said. He jogged forward and I saw an 8" x 10" picture of an older man pinned to the back of his shirt. The image wasn't painted into the fabric. It wasn't some fancy outfit. Above the picture was "For you Dad." I wanted to run up to him and give him the same message that he had just given to me. I wanted to tell him that his dad would be proud of him. But I couldn't. He was too fast. Or I was too slow. I ran the first half of the marathon in about two hours. The second half took me twice as long. My marathon tale isn't of fast times or broken records. I'm just a normal guy who for one day stood with heroes.

Jim Ellis, who at age 32 was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, is a University of Florida senior majoring in journalism.

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Mac's "SwimSTRONG" Foundation

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