I saw 24,000 people share one heart for one day.
Below are my thoughts on the LA Marathon and one of the most profound examples of the human condition and triumph I’ve ever witnessed.
At 5:45am Sunday morning, I drove my beloved Michelle to Dodger stadium to make an attempt to run the LA Marathon for the first time. Michelle has never participated in any organized race or for that matter, when I asked what's the longest she’d ever run, she replied “just under a mile”. So, needless to say my expectations weren’t that high. We all figured she’d run/walk about 7-10 miles and call it a day. Which would have been totally fine. However, there was something in the air that foggy morning at Dodger stadium that I’d never seen before. As I looked around me I saw no specific race, ethnicity or religion. No preferred group or style. There were no underdogs. Just people - Gods people. (whatever that may mean to you) I saw 90 year old grandmothers, little high school kids, blind people, fathers pushing there sons in wheelchairs, charities and non-prophets. Everybody seemed to have a common bond that surpassed the desire to put a 26.2 sticker on the back of there SUV. But, it hadn’t truly hit me yet. I was still looking around sizing up everyone thinking “Michelle’s not going to come in last is she?” Trying to find someone that she would beat.
Well, as the horn blew and the 23,000 people started running towards the start line the loud speaker was blaring “I love LA” by Randy Newman and the upbeat mood became even more upbeat. It was kind of like a giant alarm clock that woke everyone up, reminding everyone that this was actually happening. As the runners corralled through the starting line, everyone was waving and hugging, bands were marching and Randy Newman was reminding all of us of our great city. I waited the 15 minutes it took for Michelle to get through the starting line and waived her off on her fantastic journey.
The LA Marathon is basically a large scale run through the history, milestones and landmarks of LA and all of it’s neighborhoods. Starting from Dodger stadium through downtown, the hipster and rocker neighborhoods, touristy Hollywood, mens giving out free hugs in West Hollywood, the white Range Rovers and Bentleys of Beverly Hills, the college town of Brentwood and eventually ending up right on the beach in Santa Monica.
After leaving Michelle, I went home to monitor the race from TV. At that point I was keeping in touch with Michelle via text messages. She had just passed China Town where they basically had a small parade and drum show for the runners as they passed. She was loving it. The 72 degree California weather couldn’t have made it more perfect. Around 11 miles (Hollywood) I had agreed to meet her as she passed the Kodak Theatre, which I did. I parked and when I saw her, I ran about a mile with her and we talked about her experience up to that point. “the people are all so friendly” and “i haven't given this many high five’s in my life” she was tired but was having a blast and fully fueled by the amazing support, live bands and entertainment along the way. She said that was going to keep trucking a bit longer.
Well, in LA, as many people know, it can often get colder and more overcast as you head towards the coast as a result of the of the marine layer and cool ocean winds. At about 14 miles in, Michelle had started to show a bit of fatigue and confusion. I started thinking that she’d had enough and it might be time to toss in the towel and call it a day.
Around 1:30 I parked and met Michelle on the 18th mile. I started to notice how the faces on the runners had grown long. The cheering squads had dwindled down to a few. Michelle was in the tail end of the pack - about the last third. So, at that point in the Marathon, all the fast people had long since passed and were off to celebrating. All that remained were streets full of banana peels and empty paper cups almost as if a parade had just finished. Although the streets were skattered with volunteers and families still waiting for there loved ones to pass, the sky had turned grey and cold and peoples spirits were rapidly fading. I saw Michelle come running around the corner, struggling, barely holding on. I ran up and gave her a fruit roll up that was given to me by a sweet jewish women saying "good luck to her". I put my arm around Michelle and said, with astonishment, “I think you just might finish this”. She started to cry and with tears in her eyes, looked at me and said “I know”. She had run 18 miles out of her expected 10 and had only 8 miles to the finish line. I ran a few more blocks with her and as she hit mile 19, I stopped running and headed back to my car. But as I turned around and saw her run off into the foggy distance I realized what this was really all about.
You see, one night night in rural Pennsylvania, on her way home, Michelle had a head on collision with another car in which her best friend was killed. Michelle woke up a week or so later to find her legs were literally shattered into pieces and had to be rebuilt with pins and bolts. She was told by her doctor that she might not ever walk again. In addition to that tragic accident, Michelle’s life, as with many others, has not been without a great deal of pain and loss. A loss that often can tear some apart and make them bitter and cold. I realized that this was not about running or bragging rights, this was each individuals internal struggle and the willpower it takes to tell yourself, “I will not be defeated”. As I walked back to my car I saw that same look on everyones face. “I will not be defeated” “I will conquer this obstacle” “I will survive this”.
I met Michelle at 22 miles. This time she was a total wreck. I kept sending her texts saying, “keep running, keep running” and sending words of encouragement about how proud of her I was and how far she’s come. I told her to not let anyone pass her and to try and pass other people within the next mile. Eventually Michelle came running around the corner with tears in her eyes slowly putting one foot in front of the other in agony. Her contacts had fogged up from the salt water from her tears and she couldn’t see well. She was hungry, had to go to the bathroom and her body was aching and swollen. Her cell phone was out of power so her inspiring music and communication with people had gone away. The cold crisp pacific air was taking a toll on her muscles. I looked around and behind her were three teenage girls running together, the two on the outside were holding up the one in middle who was also crying. Behind them was a man in a wheelchair who’s struggle and torment has crystalized in my memory. I saw people in total agony, but yet, they all kept carrying on. One step at a time. ...And everyone was a witness to this. Everyone was clapping and saying “keep moving” and “your almost there”. You wanted to pick them up and carry them but you couldn't. I told Michelle I’d see her at the finish line and once again watched her run ever so slowly into the foggy distance with tears in my eyes. I wanted to cry out to her and hold her and tell her all the feelings I had and how proud and amazed at what she had already accomplished but knew I couldn’t. I couldn’t slow her down or weaken her will. The last text I received from her was “I can’t see” and about five minutes later she texted, “I did bathroom”. ..She was on her own at that point.
Based on her pace time of about 15 minutes per mile I figured she would be crossing the finish line at about 3:30ish. So with no communication, I waited. I saw thousands of people hugging and limping across the finish line. Families and loved ones had flowers and gifts. It was such a moment of celebration and the cheers and screams were exciting and exhilarating but yet somehow melancholy. I couldn’t stop my eyes from watering up as I watched people reunite with joy, accomplishment and tears.
I knew how powerful and emotional Michelle’s personal journey was. I knew how far she’d come since her accident that left her in a wheelchair for so long. I saw the doubt and pain she experienced. But it eventually it dawned on me that Michelle was not unique to this experience. That every one of the runners, young, old, sick, healthy, fast, slow. Black, white, asian, latino. Smart, not so smart, pretty, ugly, average ,christian, muslim, buddhist, jewish. Every runner had a story to tell and a journey that they had come through. The beauty of the human spirit shined through all who were there that day. I realized that no religion, race, creed or amount of money, education or social status would have helped any one of those runners. It was truly and simply, YOU. And your ability to not give up. That’s what bonded everyone that day. That inner power that comes from within, not externally. I witnessed 24,000 people share one heart.
Michelle had no formal Marathon training, she was not nearly in the shape for a run like this. Not even close. She doesn’t even run. She just hikes on occasion. At the end of the day, it clearly wasn’t her training but her determination and attitude that said “YOU WILL NOT DEFEAT ME” that, with tears in her eyes, placed one foot in front of the next.
At around 3:30 I received a phone call from an unknown number from San Diego. I answered hesitantly, hoping it wasn’t some paramedic telling me Michelle had been injured and was in the hospital. When I answered the call and heard Michelle say, “I did it” I began to weep. She had borrowed a phone from someone to call me. I told here where I was, on the spectators side of a huge long fence and she came to meet me. We hugged and cried - words cannot express those feelings.
The car was about 12 blocks away from the finish line. So, getting her to the car after the race in the cold 55 degree weather turned out to be quite a challenge. But, once in the car I cranked the heat and took her to get a much deserved meal at one of my favorite mexican places. She wore her medal in the restaurant We talked and reminisced about the race. We looked at the map and she went over all that happened almost turn by turn. About 20 minutes into her margarita she started dozing off. She took about two bites of her food and had had enough. I drove her home around 4:30, sat her on the sofa and went home.
Since then, I haven’t been able to get this story out of my mind. I know that generally inspiration comes and goes with a relatively short shelf life. At least for me. But I hope the experience I witnessed that day stays true and I can appreciate the good in people. That we might actually have more in common than we do differences. That everyone hurts and everyone has hurdles to overcome and its the human spirit that bonds us. That there is a light that shines in all of us, know matter how dim. Maybe that, in effect, is the true intention and definition of God. Or at least that's what I'd like to believe. Maybe it's the one common thread that binds us all together or maybe simply it's the acknowledgment and acceptance of that idea that holds so much power.
he next time I’m faced with a hardship or feel the need to give up I will remember Michelle’s red, sad face struggling as she rounded the corner of Wilshire blvd. or that determined old man in his wheelchair constantly pushing along or that teenager girl being helped by her friends. In most importantly, the knowledge that at any point they all could have simply walked away and walked into one of those warm cafe's crowded with people and sat down and given up. But they didn't.. They kept on.
Michelle ran for 7 hours and five minutes and finished 18,326th place. One step at a time.
Congratulations Michelle. I always have and always will... love you.