Back in the 90s Gatorade had a commercial featuring Michael Jordan slam dunking basketballs to the song “Be Like Mike”. The commercial captured the dream of every kid playing basketball at the time – they wanted to be like Mike.
I just finished reading Meb Keflezighi’s book “26 Marathons” in which he describes each of his races and what he learned running them. I may not have won a major marathon or an Olympic medal. But after reading about Meb’s 2013 New York City (NYC) Marathon, I realized I am just like Meb.
The 2013 NYC Marathon was an important one for the racing community. The previous year’s race had been canceled due to Hurricane Sandy, which heavily damaged Staten Island. The 2013 Boston Marathon bombing was also still fresh in our minds. Although Meb was coming back from some injuries, he felt it was important to participate in the race to help us heal.
Meb was keeping with the pack until about Mile 19 when he started having pain in his right hip flexors. He could barely pick his legs up. In fact he stopped running. But Meb didn’t want to quit. He kept pushing himself to keep going. As he explained “I knew what it’s like to win. Now I was going to find out what it’s like to get to the finish line no matter what, even if I have to walk the last seven miles.” He ran Mile 20 in about 10 minutes, nearly matching his PR for a 5K of 13:11.
About this time Mike Cassidy, a runner from Staten Island who Meb met before the race, caught up to him. Mike could tell Meb was not having a good race day. Meb should have been way ahead of him. Although Mike could have passed Meb and continued to run his own race, they decided to run the remainder of the race together. Mike helped pace Meb, slowing on uphills and providing encouragement. As they neared the finish line, Mike told Meb “it was an honor to run with him.” They crossed the finish line, holding hands, arms raised in the air.
Because of that race, Meb realized the special connection runners have to each other. While the elites are competing against each other, every other runner is out there just trying to run the best they can. In every race there are runners helping others. We do it because we know sometimes the runner next to us might be hurting more than we are. That day Meb felt he “was just a fellow runner”. Someone helped him through those final miles. In his book Meb also relates races where he helped teammates who were struggling. Because at the end of the race, Meb feels “we all want to help each other do the best we can.” In my mind Meb demonstrates the ultimate in sportsmanship.
Reading about his 2013 NYC Marathon, I got a lump in my throat. I could relate to Meb’s story because I am like Meb. During my 17 marathons and 60 half marathons, I have experienced the same camaraderie, where another runner helped me or I came to the aid of a runner who needed some extra support.
At Mile 10.5 of the 2017 Chicago Marathon, I fell (the first and only time I have done that in a race). I don’t think I was down on the ground for more than two seconds when two male runners scooped me up off the ground. They probably prevented runners from tripping over me as I was sprawled on the ground. After checking to make sure I was okay, they ran off. That memory is one of the first things to pop in my mind when I think back to my Chicago Marathon. A couple guys who helped out another runner.
I also thought of Allison, the runner I met during the 2015 Rock ’n’ Roll Savannah Half Marathon. There were issues with water stations running out of water on a day where the weather became very warm and humid. I met Allison in my starting corral. She wasn’t carrying water or nutrition with her. When I caught up to her halfway through the race, she was having a tough time. I had passed runners on the side of the course who were overcome by the heat and one who was lying on the ground being treated by medics. After witnessing that, I decided to stay with Allison. I could have sped off to finish my race and get out of the heat but I couldn’t leave Allison alone. I shared my water and Honey Stinger Cubes with her. I paced her, picking landmarks to run to before we would take a walk break. I talked about anything I could think of to keep her mind off how difficult the conditions were. We worked together to make it to the finish line (and we both managed to smile for our finish photo).
There have been other runners besides Allison who I have teamed up with, including Tim, a young man in Nebraska last August. Mentally Tim was checking out. There is a huge mental component to running. Having someone who can run alongside you and provide encouragement can mean the difference between getting a medal or a DNF (Did Not Finish). I stayed with Tim, talking to him and keeping him focused right up to the finish line. For me that is a big part of running a race – being there to help someone else who might need it.
Meb fans will enjoy reading Meb’s account of his 26 marathons. Not only will they get a better appreciation for his accomplishments, they might find ways they too are like Meb.