Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Two pictures from Sunday

A couple of images from Sunday

The volunteer food--they took good
care of us!

Water tables stocked and ready

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Parade of “Yes”: Volunteering at a Marathon

Today, I volunteered at the Philadelphia Marathon.

And I recommend this experience to anyone who has run a marathon—or who has not. But marathoners are in the best position to understand other marathoners.

It isn't just about giving back or being good citizens or assuaging your conscience. In fact, please, please... keep one thing a secret from your conscience: volunteering can be addicting. If your conscience learns of this, it might require you to sleep on a bed of nails or walk on hot coals or endure some other such hardship to atone for indulging your addiction.

And it's not just about getting a free shirt and being fed hot chocolate, coffee, and pastries, although I happily received these gifts when I arrived at the Bryn Mawr Running Club aid station in Manayunk, near the 20-mile mark.

It's not just the music, although the strains of “Rocky” and “YMCA” and “Sweet Caroline” were energizing.

It's not even just the time with running buds who have stepped up to volunteer, although volunteering gives runners of all speeds a common project that we can all share in and celebrate.

For me, it's very much the runners—from the speedy souls at the front to the soul-weary at the back. It's the human parade, watching people find that inner “whatever-it-is” that propels them to the finish line.

I don't go for the reverse snobbery that gives greater accolades to the back-of-pack runners—although I've been at the back of the pack much more than at the front. I've trained well and have trained badly for races and I know the difference in the results. I've made more than my share of training mistakes. Some I have learned from. Some I'm still working on. And I look to the elites as models of what people can aspire to, of what people can achieve, of what it takes to win. While some of it is talent, I've met enough elite runners (and, come to think of it, elites in other fields) to know that talent is only part of the equation.

Yet I also feel for those further back, know how it is to wrestle with my imperfect-- sometimes not as motivated as it should be--self. I know how tempting potato chips and pizza can be. I continue to love chocolate more than is good for me. Sometimes all this catches up, and the training is less than it could be. But I know that out on the course, there is that point where I need to commit, to make something happen. Sometimes I decide to pull out, regroup, accept that it isn't my day. And sometimes I need to finish, come what may, regardless of how I feel.

So equipped with this mixture of experience, I take my place next to a table stocked with cups of Gatorade.

First come the wheelchair athletes. Their hands occupied with steering, they take nothing, but sometimes acknowledge our cheers with a brief smile. They lead this parade in many ways, their presence reminding us to rethink the difference between "able-bodied" and "disabled." Often the leaders finish in less than two hours.

Then come the lead runners, flying by, grabbing maybe a sip or two of water, midstride. They too seem to need little or nothing from the volunteers, being lit from within by their own competitive fire. Yet I like to think that they too welcome our presence, our willingness to give them whatever they need to make their race a success. And if they should on rare occasions falter, we're there for them.

The early runners take only the water. I stand waiting, holding out cups and the hope that someone will take the Gatorade I offer. But I know they'll come soon enough, those wanting Gatorade. And I put down my cups for a bit, cheer, ring the cowbell someone gave me, pick up cups, cheer some more, admire the efficient strides, the form, the speed.

As time goes by, the numbers increase, and the pace slows, at first imperceptibly, then precipitously.

It starts with slowing down at the water stations, then walking through them, then walking beyond them.

Those in the three-hour range stream by, still on the run, blinders still on, goals in their eyes.

Then come the four, five, and six-hour marathoners, and increasing evidence of suffering: Faces wincing, strides choppier. Some pick their knees up as we did when children playing soldier—but their aim was not to march, simply to shake the growing stiffness out of their legs. The eyes plead for this race to be over.

Still, some are clearly enjoying themselves—running or walking with friends, breaking into dance steps, high fiving each other. And some lone souls trot along, slowly yes, but steadily, concentrating on the task at hand, accepting cups thrust out at them, and moving on.

Finally come those whose bodies are finished with running. Yet they labor on. They know they are in for a long march to the finish, and they seem to have made some kind of peace with the prospect—or at least have resigned themselves to the pace. Yet even in that resignation, hope persists and the will to move forward. They may reach the finish line to find the food almost gone, the massage tent closed, finishers' medals all given away. All the same, this remains their journey, their sole-searing, soul-searing journey, and they will glean what they can from it.

This is street theatre, drama, pageantry, costume... The lead runners sport flamboyant greens and oranges. Their shoes--the racing flats the less gifted dare not wear in a race that long--dazzle in the sun. Later, the costumes grow more diverse, more whimsical: tutus, kilts, homemade wings, a lime green body suit, a pumpkin, a bathrobe. While some are content to let their race numbers broadcast their names, others have (justifiably in my case) less confidence in the eyesight of onlookers, and etch their names on shirts—sometimes in several different places. Playfulness rules.

After a while, my hands shake from the cold, and I worry I will drop cups. Sometimes when a runner reaches for my outstretched cup, I lose my grip and the Gatorade spills. Yet when a fellow volunteer suggests I go across the street for some coffee or hot chocolate to warm up, while tempted to take the break, I discover instead new energy.

Looking at the determined faces, I find myself loving every single one of these runners, not wanting to miss the moments, not wanting to leave their side. I had been there, where they are.

My slowest marathons were a little over five hours, so I knew the way that pain can take over a whole body, the way that every step leads to a foot cramp, the way that you ask yourself how you can possibly take one more running step, and yet there's still another 10k to go. I could feel their pain in my own muscles. And I wanted to give them not just Gatorade but my presence—to bring smiles to their faces, I dance to the music as I hold out my offering. When they laugh and their steps liven, I feel their renewed energy.

They become my “children” to be encouraged, fed, cared for. In some cases, I think, “I'd pick you up and personally carry you to the finish if I could.” But of course they (and I in the same situation) would refuse such an offer unless they could not stay on their feet. They want to finish on their own dwindling steam.

Sure, they have heard the “You should have trained better” lectures, the “respect the distance” lectures. They may even agree with the principle behind such lectures. I know that my training for my 5.25 mile Great South Bay Swim was inadequate. I decided after some deliberation to go forward anyway. In the last two miles of that swim, feeling the sunburn and jellyfish sting settling in, I discovered a power in me that surprised me, and despite a slower time than I'd have liked, I have no regrets. I had my reasons. Others have theirs. And what we learn is the need to prepare better. We learn it the hard way, learn it in pain. But we learn it and learn something about our own drive.

Many, even slower runners, do in fact “respect the distance,” put in the miles. Or perhaps, although fast, they train hard only to hit a bad patch. Marathons are a roll of the dice, and running them is a gamble—which isn't to say people shouldn't run them, although they are not to be taken on lightly.

I know. I have run marathons with the ever-present hope that THIS one will be my Boston qualifier or at least a sub-whatever effort. That THIS time my training will pay off. That I will show them... whoever they are... that I can do this. Sometimes it doesn't work out. I have dropped out of two marathons, completed seven.

Of the seven I completed, I was fully satisfied with only one: the Boston qualifier I ran in 1995, when everything came together, and the finish clock greeted me with the much trained for time. Some don't even find that one. Yet the marathon tantalizes, invites, says to us after each one, “The next one will be better.” And we believe it. We can't ignore its siren call. It wants us back again. And we come back, often, because sometimes it all does come together. Sometimes there is the magic we dream of. But even when there is not, there is something deep down that we look for in ourselves.

The motivations vary. Some seek to win either overall or in their age group. Some want a particular time. Some just want to finish, to survive, to carry that survival into their lives. To know in those moments at work when deadlines loom and they doubt themselves or at home when they have to stay up with a sick child or an ailing parent that they did this thing on this day and no one can take that from them. And we need those defining moments. Some find them in marathons. Some on backpack trips or bike rides or triathlons or sailing through a storm—or in ways not connected to sports at all.

We need a yes from ourselves when yes seems scarce. That yes, that yes echoes, resounds, fills us with the hope that other yeses await us.

We need this. And in witnessing the many “yeses” today, I take them home with me and feel their pulsing energy. And I can find my own “yeses.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Who's a prophet? (Hint: it's not about profits)

I've made it a habit to visit the "Sacred Space" prayer site each day. There are some guides to reflection and the day's scripture reading. Today's has to do with Jesus warning people that many will come in his name, saying "I am he" and "the time is near."

That's been happening since people first began to communicate with one another. Competition. "I'm the real deal." It happens in advertising. In mega-churches. In cults. I'm always a bit wary of anyone who tells me the world is about to end so sell what you have and move into the wilderness, off the grid, onto my compound. Or even of those who demand complete submission to their "order" whatever it may be.

I watched it during the last election campaign: Candidates promising that their opponents were un-American and that they alone held the key to the promised land, etc. etc.; competing tv ads telling us that the country would be in danger if we voted for their opponent; people voting their fears, not their hopes.

People jump onto bandwagons elsewhere too. Diet ads promise major weight loss. Supplement companies tell you that you'll feel like a kid again if you take their magic formula. Prescription drug companies have gotten into the act, promising that you'll no longer be depressed, that your sex life will improve, that you'll lose the heartburn, protect yourself from heart attacks, and much more, if you take the advertised medicine. (Of course, prescription drug companies need to cover their backsides, so they pretty much undercut their promises with dire warnings of what could happen to you if you take their products. "Some rare but fatal side effects may occur." Wow! I've got to have that drug now!)

But ads can be tuned out. Two words: mute button.

For me, the worrisome profits... oh ... er... prophets... are those in the religious field. They want nothing less than your soul. They want your lives under their control. They want to intimidate you into submission to their version of reality. Yet what do they offer? Insular, insulated "protection." (Always reminds me of the old gangster movies... "That's a nice store you have there. Wouldn't want anything to happen to it, now would you?")

The extreme examples are Jim Jones and other cult leaders, but they are not alone. And they occur across religious boundaries. They promise that if you band with them, your soul will be "safe." But if you don't, you'll be cut adrift and in danger. They tell you to suspend any critical thinking, ask no questions, just accept what they say because they know better than you. And because the world can sometimes be a scary place, their promises can seem seductive. Follow me, listen to me, depend on me, and you'll be okay. They promise us our childhood innocence--if we only follow their way. Jesus doesn't seem to be making any such promises. In fact, it looks as if people following him could fare worse than average. Sure he says that the spirit will instruct you on what to say when faced with your adversaries. But you won't be off in someone's tent or compound. You'll be out facing these adversaries, whoever they may be. And you may feel alone.

This reading is about courage, not about using religion as a hiding place.

But who are my heroes? Who are my prophets? They're people who would be surprised to be seen that way. They're priests like John McNamee who has lived in a rundown area of North Philadelphia, ministering to people barely able to survive. In his autobiography, he shares both the deep spiritual satisfactions and the frustrations of his work. But it was always about just waking up and keeping, on, having courage to start a day faced with lack of appreciation or loneliness. It was about facing the grind and continuing to write poetry in the most "unpoetic" (whatever "poetic" means) of settings.

Or maybe they are like the everyday people in my life:
  • My siblings and friends raising children in a more and more complex world and seeing them through to adulthood, continuing to be there when needed;
  • My friends who direct or volunteer at races, coach kids, encourage team-mates, donate time and money in a tight economy;
  • Bob, owner of Bryn Mawr Running Company and an elite runner himself--holding free events, showing the same enthusiasm to a customer buying a pair of $20 tent sale shoes as he does for those who buy $100 shoes; giving time and money to charities like ALS foundation;
  • Longtime friends, Mort and Annette, who have been a mainstay to their nieces and nephews, to their students, to their neighbors, teaching me what it means to care for students.

You may notice that this list doesn't restrict itself to any one religion. Some of my prophets claim no religious persuasion. They simply "keep on keeping on," because they have a passion and energy that fires them up in good times and gives them a handhold in tough times. I think of my niece Kate with her new baby, saying that as exhausting as new motherhood can be, seeing little Leokadia smile makes it all worthwhile.

My heroes would probably wave away the title of "hero." They don't want you to inflate their status. They want simply to be friend, to be family, to be neighbor. They don't want you to be blind to their flaws, just be their friend, family, neighbor.

They want you to be you, not their possession to control. They want you to recognize the hero in you, the strong person you yourself are. So here's to all the heroes and prophets who don't see themselves as such, who just want to do right by others.