Sunday, October 31, 2010
The great thing about life is that we are challenged every single day - perhaps by business decisions, family problems, or health conditions. The really great thing about life is that, win or lose these challenges, we can always face them with courage, even when we are not sure where (or if) we will find it.
I put this theory to the test when I ran my first marathon October of this year, The Marine Corps Marathon, in Washington, D.C. Initially, I thought the 26.2 mile run would be a test of courage. Instead, it turned out to be about honor. I ran to honor a team of five Marines located somewhere in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan. This team is lead by a 27-year-old first Lieutenant that happens to be my oldest son, Anthony.
Anthony graduated from The Citadel in Charleston, SC, in 2005. After working in Washington for a defense contractor post graduation, Anthony was encouraged to go to OCS for the Marine Corp by the contractor. When I asked him why the change, he told me that this was something he had to do to feel successful. Anthony has always found his success on "The Road Less Traveled," and he joked that this particular Road has been avoided by many and traveled by few! His team was deployed to the Helmand Province earlier this year, and other than that information the only thing I know for sure is that the Road exists in Afghanistan, too.
While I was training for the Music City Half Marathon a while back, I received an unexpected e-mail from Anthony telling me it was time for me to venture down that less-traveled Road he knows so well. He wanted me to register for the Marine Corp Marathon and represent his team. I accepted his challenge, though not without concern.
Please understand, at 55, I look more like a linebacker than a runner. I knew the preparation would be challenging and exhausting. I also knew that I would have Anthony, a true marathoner and ironman, helping me with my game plan. I hoped that would be enough to see me through the race and honor Anthony's team. Some days I wondered "what the hell was I thinking?" Then I would remember Anthony's e-mails and letters that described some of the challenges his team faced every single day. Training for a marathon almost seemed liked a luxury compared to what he was experiencing. No, I didn't have trouble getting back out on the Road again.
On October 30th my training was complete, and I was ready to head to Washington, D.C. with an olive drab shirt carrying the names of Anthony's team on the back. It had been a while since I'd heard anything from Anthony, but this day I found an e-mail I must have missed earlier in the week:
Date: October 23, 2010 1:30:50 PM EDT
Subject: Re: hey
Pop, going back to small base, no computer or phone but just wanted to say good luck and have fun on the run in case I don't talk to you. Stand tall and deliver the way the Marines take the fight to the enemy. Like to see a picture of you at the Iwo Jima Memorial when you're done. Just remember when the next objective looks a million miles away to set small goals in between and run towards the sound of the guns. That's how we made it to cover the other day and turned the momentum against the t-ban, running into the f------ bullets. Use the cool air to aspirate and know it's denser than the hot, humid air in summer and you can run longer with less breath. Lot of Marines out here getting it on every day that would love to be in your shoes. Get a sprint in there over the GW memorial and 14th st bridges to pick up some time and cool off while taking in the sights...hydrate and salts too. Alright pop you got this. I told the boys you're running again, so we'll be thinking about you. See you on the flipside. Proud of you dad and thanks.
I also had learned that his Team was ambushed but sustained no injuries. I truly understood what he meant about running "towards the sound of the guns." For me, it meant the finish line. For Anthony, it was part of the worst day of his young life.
Four a.m. I nervously roam the hotel room (probably like other first-time marathoners) when my cell phone rings. A voice on the other end says "Good luck today. Semper Fi!" - then silence. Suddenly I am charged up and ready for the Road. I get on the elevator to catch the metro to the Pentagon. When the doors open I get another surprise. There is Satan, dressed in red body paint, horns, pitchfork, black cape, and a sign that says MCM Race #666! NOT the guy I wanted to see before my first marathon, but hell, it is Halloween and God has a sense of humor. Needless to say, this guy is a big hit on the metro.
The Pentagon is where the race begins is alive with excitement. Runners who completed the race in previous years are on hand, handing out encouragement and advice about the course. People share stories while they wait to head to the corrals. The sun has just come up over the Washington Monument, and I don't think I have ever seen a more beautiful sunrise. At 7:45, two F-18s and two CH 53 Marine helicopters complete a low fly-by. The wheel-chair athletes - fierce, determined, and inspiring - start their race first. Suddenly, the Howitzer fires, shaking the ground. It's 8 a.m. and the race is on!
It feels really good to cross the starting line and get going. My mentors prepped me well for the day: start out slowly and gradually increase my pace; drink two of everything at all the stops (money in the bank for later in the race); slam some GU's down; and especially, enjoy everything around me.
In all the half marathons I have run, I never really paid much attention to the crowds. This race is different. I want to soak up all the excitement. The Marines and crowd are shouting the whole time as I run the first five miles, crossing the Rosslyn and Key Bridge. Their support makes the miles go by quickly. Every time I see Marines I wonder if they have been to the Middle East and what kind of experience they endured. Every uniform I see reminds me of Anthony.
Miles 6 - 9
Running through the National Park and Georgetown keeps things interesting. My legs feel really good and the crowd keeps the momentum going. Mile 7 goes through the Reservoir, with a gradual climb that finally levels off.
During these miles my running companions include a 70-year-old guy who has just completed fifty marathons in fifty states, and a blind man running with his assistant and a platoon of Army Rangers. No doubt about it - this Marathon is going to be about courage, honor and determination.
As I head into mile ten, I feel really good. I'm running a 12:15 pace, and the cool air and autumn sunshine keep the run enjoyable. As I move through miles eleven and twelve, I see more determination, pain and drive in the runners around me. When I pass the turn at mile thirteen, I know I am half-way to "the guns," and mile sixteen will be coming up soon.
During my training, the longest distance I ran was sixteen miles and I remembered the first time I tried it. I started at 4 a.m. to beat the traffic. During the run I kept thinking "what the hell am I doing out here?" But just as soon as that thought entered my mind, another one would pop up. It was of Anthony, dealing with 130-degree heat and all the other challenges his team faced.
At one point during my training, I tore my menisci and had severe plantar fasciitis. I took about a week off from running and nearly went crazy. I kept thinking about the commitment I made to Anthony's team and knew I had to get back to my training. On the advice of an athletic trainer, I applied some Vicks Vapor Rub to my heel. Now, in Tennessee we have a lot of home remedies for what ails you, but this was a first for me. But it worked! If anyone smelled Vick's vapor rub during the run, it was me.
Mile sixteen finally arrives, and I cruise past the WWII and Korean Memorials. I can't help thinking, "hey, this is the furthest we have been, big guy! How do you think we are going to get to mile twenty?" Looks like I'll have help.
Ahead of me, I see a runner dressed in full camouflage, boots, and a 50-pound pack. As I move up beside him I ask if he has been to Iraq or Afghanistan. He answers that he was a Royal Marine in Afghanistan. I tell him about Anthony and his guys, and how I am running in honor of him and his team. As we run together we talk easily, and I feel I have known him for years. I notice that while we are talking, he only looks straight ahead; he never turns to look at me. When I say my goodbyes to move on ahead, he finally turns to me and I can see what remains of the other side of his face. The war has left its mark on him, and I can only imagine what he experienced at such a young age. "How can he do this?" I wonder. "Where does his strength come from, and what does his pack represent?" I feel proud that he spoke to me as we run down Constitution Avenue.
Mile 17 and 18
As I move down the street, the sound of oo-rahs follow me when Marines lining the streets see my shirt with Anthony's Team Unit and names. One guy pulls up next to me and says "Good luck to your son and tell him thanks!" Moments like this quiet the nagging voice of doubt in my head.
I pass the Capitol's Reflection Pond and remember this is a watering hole. I gas up for the next leg with food and fluids, wishing Anthony were here to share this with me.
I come to a rise in the Road (not pretty, this late in the game), with the 14th Street bridge in the distance. I remember Anthony's advice to get in a sprint now. Then I see the sign someone has left for the runners: "The Bridge is your Bitch". Perfect! A little head wind feels great and the crowds' cheers push me along.
I beat the bridge, but now I have to deal with my calves, which are sending up warning signals. I try to concentrate on my surroundings (coming into Crystal City) and look for the EADS building where Anthony first worked after graduating from the Citadel. In my head, I play back the sights I have seen and remember the people I have met along the way to distract myself.
I am tired, but there always seems to be motivation around the next corner. This time it comes from a 30-year retired Marine who must have been a drill instructor. He is barking out orders to the runners behind me. I know if I slow down, this guy will tell me to drop and give him twenty-five push-ups! I speak with him after the race and find out this is his 10th MCM. He was just making sure his friends finish the race.
Mile 23 and 24
I had hoped that the adrenalin from the cheering crowds would help me in these last few miles, but my calves are knotting up worse than they ever have before. I don't dare stop to stretch them; I know I will never start back up if I do. The pain reduces me to a run-walk gait (which is really more walk than run - but hey! I'm still moving!) This is the Road I travel for the next two miles. I am angry and disgusted with myself and I hear my old friend, the voice inside my head, say, "Well, good try!" This is when I send up a prayer: "God, help me get through this!"
I do stop and stretch those muscles. When I start running again, my calves remind me that they are not on board with this plan. To distract myself, I start thinking about all my experiences today, especially that courageous Royal Marine. My voice starts talking again, but this time it reminds me of what Anthony said - just set small goals and "run towards the sound of the guns." That is what I do.
I keep setting small goals as I move forward toward the guns. I am really tired and my legs are knotted up, but I realize that all these small goals are working for me; I can see the finish line! As I come down this last leg of the Road, I notice all the finishers walking with their medals. They are shouting "You can make it!" to the runners still trying to achieve their goal.
Now I see the road on the left that takes you to the Memorial. I set my last goal, set out for me by Anthony: Sprint To The Finish. The road is lined with cheering crowds shouting "oo-rah!" I charge up the hill and cross the finish line. As a Second Lieutenant hangs my medal on me, I explain I did this for his brothers somewhere in the Helmand Province. And I send up a silent prayer. Thank you, God, for carrying me across the finish line and for watching over Anthony and his guys. And thanks, Anthony, for all your advice!
I get a picture in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial for Anthony and then head back to the hotel for a hot shower, ice bath and dinner.
In my heart, I know this was just the first of future Marine Corps Marathons. The experience was very spiritual for me. I witnessed crowds cheering for people they didn't know. I shared the race with wheelchair athletes who humbled me with their courage and determination. I especially remember a Royal Marine carrying more than just a fifty-pound pack on his back. I will be honored to participate in this remarkable experience again on the "Road Less Traveled."
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