March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Mile 26


Gale Fischer is a
43-year-old special education teacher in Battle Creek. He has a wife,
Kathy, and two children, Torey and Logan. He is an avid runner and
writer. He began running in 1997 and has completed 26 marathons. Gale
will provide a monthly column on running leading up to Lansing’s first
marathon on April 22.

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end. — Ursula K. LeGuin

Friday, Nov. 4 — I watched a friend run the Detroit Marathon a few weeks ago with friends. We set up camp at the 8.5-mile mark. Our friend greeted us, having completed a third of her distance, with an energetic smile and a hug for everyone. After this, we went to mile 26 to watch the first runners come in. It was thrilling to see the leaders finish, and I imagined the pride they must be feeling. After watching the first five runners make the final turn, we went to the halfway mark to cheer our friend. She greeted us with the same exuberance, looking as if she could run all day.

The array of facial expressions and body language varied between runners at the 8.5-mile mark and the 13-mile mark. Some had a stoic look on their face; some had nothing more than a blank expression. Some looked as if they had already pushed their bodies to the limit, while others were painted with a deep intensity. However, the majority of the runners demonstrated the same energy and enthusiasm as our friend.

After giving our friend high-fives, we returned to mile 26 to wait and cheer on the other runners. Many had to dig deep within themselves to finish what they started. There were looks of pain and anguish, but at the same time there was a sense of relief — in just a few short minutes, their legs, lungs and hearts would receive the much-deserved rest they were craving.

Having run several marathons myself, I could empathize with them and understood the array of emotions they were experiencing. Many struggled with every stride to make forward progress, their minds bargaining with their heavy legs and exhausted bodies to keep moving for a few more steps. Others were having the race of their lives. They showed signs of being tired, but were not teetering on the edge of shutdown. Many individuals’ facial expressions indicated the pain and exhaustion their bodies felt, but most managed to forge a tiny smile in response to our encouragement.

Thousands of runners passed us, and although all of them earned my respect and admiration, there were a few individuals that caught my attention. I saw three other friends on the racecourse that I was not expecting to see. I also noticed one runner making his way to the finish line only to run by us again in the opposite direction. He repeated this a few times and I noticed that his shirt read “coach.” I realized that each time he came by he was with runners sporting the purple Team in Training shirt.

Team in Training is an organization in which coaches train runners for endurance events to raise money and awareness for cancer research. I know these athletes appreciated the support that coach was giving them, but I feel the experience for the coach was just as gratifying.

The Detroit Marathon assigns colored bibs to racers running their first marathon. This allows spectators to give extra support to rookies. We witnessed a few rookie marathoners being joined by a friend or family member during that last stretch, with tears falling from their eyes. Perhaps the most powerful act I witnessed came from a middle-aged woman running her first marathon, jumping to stay warm. Other runners with bibs stopped by after finishing the race to watch others come in, so I assumed she finished her race as well. She said she hadn’t finished yet and was waiting for her husband, who was also running his first marathon. They had run together through mile 20, but he had to slow his pace, encouraging her to continue ahead. She forged on, but decided to wait for him so they could finish together. I’m sure the inconvenience of waiting in the cold was worth the experience of sharing the finishing moment together.

Watching my friend round the corner was just as thrilling as the other scenes we saw. At age 71, she was completing her seventh marathon, her first following a partial hip replacement three years earlier. When she began preparing for this marathon I had no doubt in her mental resolve, but my confidence in her hip was not as strong. Seeing her finish was not a surprise, but it was an amazing experience and an honor to be there. She insisted that this was her last marathon, but only time will tell.

The final quarter-mile of a marathon is a metaphor for many things in life. It is a point in a journey that is both difficult and satisfying. The final portion of a journey presents the most challenging obstacles while offering the most significant rewards. The end can be filled with an array of emotions, but one question keeps nagging: Is the finish line the end of the journey, a stepping-stone or the beginning of a new journey? The answer depends on who you are and what that metaphorical finish line is. Not everyone has run a marathon, but they have arrived at mile 26 of various journeys in their lives.

If you ever have the opportunity to be a marathon spectator, I encourage you to watch at mile 26. Participants have a story to share and watching the end of their journeys is an opportunity to share a powerful moment in that story. Their body language and facial expressions offer as much insight as spoken words or written text on paper.

Keep running!

Until next time, this has been just another runner’s perspective.