On May 4, I raced to qualify for the Boston Marathon. The Boston race requires certain time thresholds to be met by various age groups. As for me, the 50-year-old cut is 3 hours and 30 minutes for the 26.2 miles. Beat 3:30, and you can register for the biggie—the Boston Marathon.
Lining up on that 48-degree morning (8.8C), I had planned to run 7:45 pace miles to finish in 3:25. As the race progressed through 21 miles, I had averaged a 7:39 pace, slightly faster than planned.
In the 18- to 22-mile range, there’s a physical and mental milestone runners call “the wall.” The wall wrecks races. It indiscriminately selects victims to slow, cramp, or sideline. It has plagued me four times before, causing anguish that messes with race planning, positive mantras, and mental fortitude. This time I was reminded of its stealthy grip at mile 21.
As my cadence slowed and my legs grew heavier, a young man in a blue shirt passed me by. No one is moving fast in miles 20 to 25. Blue Shirt didn’t move quickly beyond me, but his pace was steady; he was visually stuck in front. I resolved to let his pace dictate mine, staying within a few yards of his steady stride. My mental state didn’t allow for doing much math, but I knew that if I ran at least 8:15s, I’d hit my goal.
It was simple to latch on to Blue Shirt on the quiet road. He pulled me along until, with a mile to go, he picked up his pace and disappeared with a slight finishing kick.
I crossed the line with a grimaced smile. The finish line timer clicked 3:25:21. I paused, hands on my knees, thankful for completing the distance—the end of an 18-week training plan with a lot of early morning miles.
While relaxing on a bench near the finish, I saw Blue Shirt again. Awkwardly rising and calling, “Hey—Blue Shirt,” I stumbled over to the slightly confused young man. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for pulling me through miles 21 to 25.” He probably didn’t realize how important he was to me that last five miles, but I wanted him to know.
Blue Shirt smiled and said, “Thanks for pulling me through 17 to 21.”
It was a brief encounter. Just two tired runners expressing appreciation and congratulations for a race well run. I don’t remember anything else we said.
Isn’t that like the Christian walk? You’re cruising along, steady and confident, and then you hit a wall. A temptation, a setback, a death, a loss. . . .
But then a “Blue Shirt” comes by. A friend, spouse, brother, sister, or a mentor from afar who reminds you that steady, unyielding effort will get you to the finish. To another day, a fresh start, a new outlook.
Who are you being a Blue Shirt to today? If someone else is your Blue Shirt, have you thanked her for helping you push past a wall?
In the words of Ecclesiastes, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up” (4:9-10).
About the Author
Steve Spoelhof runs and lives in Saint Charles, Ill., and works at the Willow Creek Association. He'll lace up his shoes for his bucket-list race, the Boston Marathon, on April 21.