Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Marathon as Pilgrimage

The rising sun lit up the back of the few clouds in the sky, casting a brilliantly illuminated orange-pink tinge around the lining of the dark morning clouds. The morning temperature (in the 40s, Fahrenheit-wise), felt brisk against my face as I walked outside, and the crowds were spilling out of the Washington, D.C. Pentagon Metro, where my friend Shawn and I found ourselves gawking at the mass of people joining us on but the latest pilgrimage-like trek. We were just two of the 22,000 runners who were going to chase our dreams of finishing the 32nd Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) this past weekend (Oct. 28, 2007). Shawn had dreams of actually doing quite well in the MCM, having figured out what possible times he could possibly finish each mile throughout the entire race, while I had the singular vision of simply finishing the marathon...just like simply finishing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela in Spain earlier in the month. While this was Shawn's second marathon, this was my third marathon, and from the previous experience I knew that there would be a wonderful mixture of running with so many people, sensing how well my body does in running such a long distance, prepared to push myself through any sense of hesitation when I ask myself, "What are you doing this for?" (usually mile 13), but always followed-up by an overwhelming sense of a "job well done" at the end of the race. While the blisters from this month's pilgrimage had almost healed totally, there was still a twinge of pain in my left hip when running, a reminder of what happened as I carried my back-pack while treading lightly on my left blistered and bruised heel.

Watching Shawn slip effortlessly into his stride within the first mile--a stride that was far faster than my stride--I was agog at the sheer size of the crowd of us runners, thousands of people beating the sidewalk pavement and road tarmac of the Washington, D.C. area's thoroughfare. The undulating crowd of onlookers was large and intoxicating, cheering everyone on the race, ringing cowbells, and holding up signs for various teams who were running together. There were teams of folks supporting autism research; running for a friend who had died in Iraq; running for the Fisher House, where many vets stay while going through rehabilitation. There were twenty or thirty Marines and volunteers passing out Gatorade and water every few miles, with other stations passing out oranges and gel packs. Now and then I would run by a Halloween reveler, with one young man dressed as one of the young women from the musical "Hairspray!", blue hair and 1960s poodle skirt.

Like the pilgrimages I've taken earlier in life, I found my stride, and stuck to it. After being jostled in very narrow passageways in some parts of the race, I stuck to my running stride. I also struck up a conversation with a new friend, Rick, from nearby Saxapahaw, North Carolina (48 years old and doing his third marathon)...just like a pilgrimage, it is the most wonderful experience when perfect strangers soon become old pals. Like the pilgrimage to Santiago, I watched with fascination as the shadow on the road's surface let me know what time it was, and which direction I was pointed throughout the race. And like the pilgrimages I've been on before, I felt the presence of God carefully, tenderly protecting me each step of the way.

My running time? Oh, well, a little bit over 5 hours. But I hit no wall, felt emotionally and physically great afterwards, just a tightness in the right upper thigh that was soon gone after walking around the fantastic William Turner exhibit at the National Gallery with friends Matt and Laura that very same afternoon. Maybe it was because of the runner's high that some people get after a race. As for Shawn, he did amazingly well, as he had really trained well for this race, and was looking forward to it. He too felt that runners' high.

The very concept of the marathon is an allusion to the ancient Greek Pheidippides, who ran 26-mi. (42-km) from Marathon to Athens to carry news of the Greek victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. Perhaps that is where marathons and pilgrimages meet: we have important messages to tell...and live!

Until the next marathon, "Bien Camino!"

Pilgrim peace,