Pain and Inspiration

“One thing about racing is that it hurts.  You better accept that from the beginning or you’re not going anywhere.” – Robert (“Blazin’ Bob”) Owen Kennedy Jr, American distance runner

On Saturday I ran a half marathon at the Summit Point Motor Sports Park in West Virginia.  I expected a flat course; all the race tracks I have seen on television look flat.  It wasn’t.  There were some short but steep hills that we had to go up.  Plus it was cold.  There was nothing to block the wind blowing over the 4 inches of snow that fell two days before the race.  My hamstrings were starting to bother me.  My mind was starting to throw in the towel from the pain when I remembered the documentary “Running for Jim.”

In the film the girls on a high school cross country team talked about how painful it is to run.  I was surprised to hear them all say this.  I thought the best runners never experienced pain when they ran.  I thought there was something wrong with me because I experience pain in races.  In the Tokyo Marathon, both my hamstrings started hurting somewhere between 10km and 20km.  It wasn’t an agonizing pain – just an uncomfortable feeling that reminded me that I have hamstrings and they weren’t real happy.  But during that race, I just focused on one thing – the finish line (and snow monkeys the next day).  I was in the zone – running with pain was meaningless.  It just was.

On Saturday I was having a hard time getting into the zone so I started thinking about the main focus of the film – Jim Tracy, a  San Francisco high school running coach who was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and his 2010 state championship girls cross country team.  ALS is a deadly disease, one that slowly robs its victim of the ability to move, a disease with no cure.  The team was devastated to hear about their coach’s diagnosis at the start of the season.  They saw how he was starting to struggle with his mobility and that inspired them to work even harder.

Jim was a tough coach.  He expected a lot from his team.  The term “tough love” comes to mind.  He didn’t lavish them with praise.  He pushed them to be the best they could be.  Jim believed that it is purely your decision to be a champion.  You just have to be committed.  The 2010 state championship showed just how committed his team was.

The championship meet took place on a rainy, unseasonably cold day in November.  Holland Reynolds was the team captain.  Before the 3.1 mile race started, Holland gathered her teammates together for a group cheer.  They were going for the record 8th state championship under Jim.  She looked at each of them and said they had to win it for Jim.  This might be the last time he coached a team to a state championship.  They had to do it for Jim.

The race of 169 runners was full of excitement from the starting gun.  To say that Holland and her team were inspired would be an understatement.  One of Holland’s teammates fell in the first 100 yards and was in last place.  She got up, kept running, and finished in 16th place.  Another teammate – who had never led a pack before – led the pack for more than half the course and ended up finishing in 3rd place.  Another was really a soccer player and was running in her first state championship; she finished  25th. Yet another teammate ran the fastest race of her life and finished 36th.

Holland, the best runner on the team, was in second place for the first 2.5 miles of the race when she started to slow down.  She was being passed by other runners.  As hard as she tried, she couldn’t run any faster.  She just kept pushing towards the finish line.  With just 3 yards to go to the finish line, the unthinkable happened.  Holland fell, overcome by dehydration and hypothermia.  Holland was disoriented but was determined to finish.  She did the only thing that she could do.  She crawled.  After she crossed the finish line, she was immediately swept up and taken to an ambulance.  She had finished in 37th place.  The team had won the championship.

Video from the race ended up on the Internet and soon every news organization was reporting on Holland’s stunning finish.  The following year Tom Coughlin, the head coach of the New York Giants football team, used the video to motivate him team.  He used Holland to show his team what finishing and commitment looked like.  Hard to imagine that an NFL player can be moved to tears over a girl high school cross country runner but it happened.  All season long, the Giants remembered Holland’s determination to finish.  That year the Giants finished in first place – they won the Super Bowl in February 2012.

Sadly, Jim succumbed to ALS in 2014, four years after his diagnosis.  But he succeeded in coaching his team to two more state championships from his wheelchair.

Through pain came inspiration.  Jim inspired and motivated Holland and her teammates to win the state championship. Holland’s fall and subsequent crawl across the finish line inspired and motivated an NFL team to go out and win the Super Bowl.  That is pretty powerful stuff.

I know that running a marathon or half-marathon might be painful.  Some days it might hurt more than others.  It is reassuring to know that I am not alone in that.  In my next race, my strategy will be to acknowledge that I may be in pain but not focus on it.  Instead, I will think about Jim and Holland, and focus on the finish line.

Check out the Running for Jim web site but I really encourage you to watch the award-winning film.  It is a tremendous story that doesn’t end at the finish line.