Dare to Live
When I was eleven, I dared to run 26 miles on a chilly January morning because I was compelled to live in a way bigger than I had ever known. In January of 2017, I will dare to row 26,000 miles because I am compelled to live bigger than I have ever known.
Because I must dare to live.
In 1981 I was eleven and living in Miami, FL. I was the youngest of three, and my sisters were 7 and 8 years older respectively. You might call this an accident, or just late to the party. My father disciplined me by combining punishment with fitness, and which seemed to make perfect sense for a former college football player and professional moto-crosser.
We had a 5 mile loop to run. My sisters would walk it. I just wanted to get it over with.
My mom ran the Orange Bowl Marathon in 1980, and I was intrigued. When she finished, I was there and stated with confidence that I would run it the next year. I never trained for this eventuality aside from playing soccer, and the occasional 5k fun run, or track and field meet at school. Running a marathon felt more like a decision to me than an athletic event. It was also bigger than the event itself, it was about taking control. If there is a point that the child grows too big to spank, then completing a marathon would mean I was too big to be told to run.
“The modern Athens Marathon commemorates the run of the soldier Pheidippides from a battlefield at the site of the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C., bringing news of a Greek victory over the Persians. Legend has it that Pheidippides delivered the momentous message “Niki!” (“victory”), then collapsed and died.”
My father was intrigued with the idea, and as the day approached he reminded me of my statement the previous year. I confirmed the plan. The morning of, he woke me up very early and I think expecting me to roll over and forget about it. I was up quickly, and we drove to the Orange Bowl Stadium to register. It was still dark. It was cold, but I was about to start running and so didn’t mind shaking a little to stay warm. I don’t remember eating breakfast other than a piece of fruit. I was hungry at the start, and would grow hungrier along the way.
I recall this all being a very independent thing. It was very much about liberation and control for me, and from the very start of the race. I needed to be alone in order to focus. Though surrounded by the thousand plus people, I was small, and seemed to be lost in that crowd. The further toward the front of the pack, the more movement, and bouncing, and stretching. Scary! I meandered toward the back.
Occasionally someone would notice me and double take. “Wow”! They would remark. “You ready?” I would nod, but think to myself, why are they asking ME this in particular? I was as ready as they were I thought. I don’t remember seeing any other kids my age at the start.
Other than to run, I had absolutely NO IDEA what I was doing. All I remember thinking was that this was going to be a long way. Several hours later I began to clue in.
The mob kicked off with excitement, and I was lost in the sea of people…..adults. Of course the theme from Rocky was being played. Everyone seemed distant. Everyone had a thousand yard stare into oblivion. As if they could see the finish, but really looking inward to themselves to see if they could reach it. I was amused, and I think the distraction of observing everyone else would help me to keep my attention off the soon growing pain in my legs and pounding feet. I quickly settled in to being alone and accomplishing my task. I began to take control.
Surprise!! Out of the crowd suddenly around Mile Marker 10 my Mom sprang from the small crowd consistently lining the road. “Hiya, How ya doin?!” she engaged with a smile as she trotted alongside. Happy to see her, “Fine”, I let out between breaths. “Im having fun”, I reassured her. She ran with me for a little bit, and let me know how good I was doing before she turned to find my dad again some distance back. She repeated this process a couple times every 5 miles or so. But then came Mile Marker 20.
Did I mention that I was clueless about what it would take to run a marathon? Or that I hadn’t trained at all for it?? I remember hearing conversation about, “Hitting the wall”. Didn’t seem important at the time. The “Wall” is simply when your body makes the switch from burning stored glycogen for energy, to burning straight fat. Or, consuming itself, and the transition hurts in a most fatiguing, piano on your back kind of way. Somewhere around Mile Marker 20 life began to change. The first thing I noticed was that my shoes began to feel like they were filling with sand and getting very heavy. My joints began to ache and every step was starting to hurt, bad. I was very tired. Real heavy, and real tired. I kept running. I knew that if I stopped that I may not start again, so I couldn’t stop. I didn’t even dare try it for a second. It felt like a cliff I might fall off of; failure. I wouldn’t be able to face my Dad if I stopped. I wouldn’t be able to face myself.
Surprise!! My mom springs from the crowd lining the road again. “Hiya, How ya doin?!” she engaged with a smile as she trotted alongside. Not so happy to see her this time, “Fine”, I let out between breaths. A few moments later I said, “Mom, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I really need to be alone right now.” Years later she told me that this was pretty tough to hear, but that she understood. There are many times like this in our lives.
The next 6 miles were 10 times further than the first 20. I drudged on, and began to look for strangers to talk to just to take my mind off the pain. I soon realized that this was torture for them! (See picture) Having an eleven year old chatting your ear off on mile 20-26 of a marathon is NOT what most people sign up for. Some even did the old sudden stop to pretend to tie their shoe routine. So I became content to press on alone. I had never been so alone. I could no longer hear the occasional cheering for me any longer from the roadside, and as obviously the youngest competitor they’d seen. I only saw faces shouting, hands clapping, and arms gesturing for me to keep rolling.
The good old Orange Bowl Stadium! I could see it now, and no longer cared how much further. I have found that in exhaustion, purpose becomes absolute. There is no other meaning but to finish; to complete the mission. Before I knew it the running path turned into the grass of the stadium, and I was galloping onto the football field. But, it still wouldn’t end there, because you couldn’t have just run straight in to the finish. Nope, you had to make a victory lap of course. In the stands there were still some people observing, but the field itself was full, and lining the taped-off way around the field. I could see the finish! Everyone was cheering franticly! I remember thinking, “RELAX people! I’ve been doing this for the past 4 plus hours now!!” I crossed the finish line and was greeted with enormous smiles and outstretched arms. Oh No! I couldn’t stop running!! I slammed right into a big guy who caught me in his arms with a laugh and then kept me moving forward. My legs where dangling behind me, useless and numb. It was like as soon as they were allowed to, they just went to sleep. I was carried to a nearby aid station vehicle, and propped up against the tire on the ground. Everyone was so welcoming and so happy to see me. An EMT gave me a bottle of water and a banana. “You gonna be alright? GREAT job!” She said messing my sweaty head and hair!
My mom found me and hugged me. She was so proud. My dad came also. He couldn’t stop smiling. We didn’t stay for the award ceremony. I slept on the drive home. I remember seeing the completion stats in the “Miami Herald” the next day. I was the youngest finisher that year by quite a margin. My time was 4 hours, 25 minutes, and 32 seconds. I had run almost exactly 10 minute miles without stopping. This was a life changer in some ways, but in others just an extension of who I already was. Even still, I had passed through a gate. I had also set a precedence for myself to never quit once started. That’s a hard habit to break. It’s an important habit to acquire.
I took control of my life that year. Those were arguably the most important hours of my life for a long time, and setting the tone for many challenges to come down the road. One of those challenges I face now, and it again is about control. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) would like to force me to run that 5 mile loop in life again; to punish me. I’m going to run through it instead!
I have set my mind on rowing the globe by myself, nonstop, and unsupported. This is something that has never even come close to being done. In fact, everyone ever attempting it has stopped after the first ocean, or maybe just the sight of the first continent and land! It seems impossible, and with so many things that can go wrong, it may be. But that is the wall. There is no way to determine if it can or can’t be scaled until I get there. Time will tell. I am compelled to do this now for one simple reason – to take control! I must. I believe that if I can crawl through the gate of impossible, that I will be free. I believe that this will be good for my band of brothers and everyone else who chooses to watch, and to see that they can be free also.
Happy Veterans Day.