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“You okay?”

“I don’t know.”

“You can do it…you’re doing great…you’re almost there.”

– A brief but repeated conversation between me and my competitors somewhere between mile 20 and mile 21 at the Manchester Marathon. My quadriceps has cramped up and I was barely hobbling along.

In my two recent races I was struck by the camaraderie and solitude that is running. We all run for different reasons and some of us are more competitive than others. Some run for the physical health benefits; others for the meditative qualities of the repetitive footfalls.

To say that I was almost there was not quite true. I still had nearly 6 miles to go. 6 miles! That’s a pretty decent distance for most people. On a good day I can cover that distance in just under 45 minutes. On that day, I was barely moving. I still had what would be almost an hour and a half of “running” in front of me. Yet here these people were, my competitors, slowing down to check on me, to see if I was “ok” and then shouting words of encouragement as they pressed on, leaving me to my lonesome struggle.

The overwhelming majority of us are not elite runners. The races we run we have no hope of winning, yet we run them anyway. We don’t race to win. We race against ourselves. Sure, we want to beat the person who has been running stride for stride with us for the last so many miles, but in the end, it is ourselves that we want to beat, whether it be a previous race’s time or the inner demon that says we can’t possibly finish. We ultimately run alone.

But as ridiculous as this sounds, we are not alone in our “aloneness”. Because we all have the common experience in trying to better ourselves, we develop an empathy for each other. I have found that the longer the races are, the more empathetic the competitors are. At the marathon level, there is the shared understanding that the last 10K of the race is an internal battle of will versus sheer exhaustion. One can talk about it and understand it intellectually, but I don’t know if one can understand it without going through it.  No matter the external encouragement, we must find the motivation to move internally; the twist being that the external encouragement can guide us to our internal motivation. It is the shared pain. If we see someone struggling in those last 6.2 miles, it is instinctive to lend a voice. I did it myself, despite the fact that I was struggling with my own physical crisis as I passed a runner worse off than me. He shouted back at me in a remarkably chipper voice, “You’re doing great!”

Imagine if everyone in the world ran a marathon at least once before they were 30, and maybe again as a reminder before 50. Would people in our country, our world be less alone and be more willing to work together? Would our politicians stop talking at each other and start talking to each other. One can only dream…

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