At Thermopylae on the final morning, when the last surviving Spartans knew they were all going to die, they turned to the warrior Dienekes and asked what they should hold in their minds to keep their courage strong. He instructed his comrades: “Fight for this alone: the man who stands at your shoulder. He is everything, and everything is contained within him.” The soldier’s prayer today on the eve of battle remains, “Lord, let me not prove unworthy of my brothers.”
I’ve struggled with this most recent race report because it’s not actually about a race. I didn’t have a clock in my head, or the boom of a cannon, bell, or buzzer to signal a start. In the early morning hours of September 24, 2011 in Staten Island, NY the ground lit only by headlamp light I took off towards the beach with about 150 others (many of them my friends). Our goal for the morning was to finish together and what we found was a greater meaning and camaraderie extending far beyond a finish time.
First of all, it was dark when we started. It was early in the morning and the air was so still. No rumbling trucks, no anxious voices, not even the sound of raindrops in the grass. The course lay hidden in the night air and I could feel the weight of the silence. Jogging across the festival grounds to the registration tent to get waivers I got chills at the peace that existed there. The patience. It was like the course was waiting as much as we were.
The quiet wasn’t broken in an instant, the clamor rose slowly as the people gathered in the parking lot, lights from their headlamps an eerie glow in the pre-dawn hours. The anticipation arrived. The run was without chips with few instructions outside of these:
1. Stay with your team.
2. Leave no one behind.
3. Finish together.
When we began it was a flurry through puddled, flooded tall grass and off towards the beach where I got to see the sunrise over the ridge and in the misty air and with cool air in my lungs, it was a gift. My eyes, often trained on the shoes in front of me during races or on gnarly, technical terrain were allowed to wander and my senses were overwhelmed.
Everything I remember about this run is about the other people who did it and what they carried with them. There was Mike who carried pipes, and tires, and buckets of water. And who spoke of his twin sons and his daughter and when he spoke of her, his eyes lit up.
There was Chef Jeff, overcoming an injury who fell to the back but never wavered in his willingness to finish. There was the man, probably my father’s age who’s name I never caught that did the course unflinchingly and while giving us trivia tips about how many feet of noodles are in every can of Campbell’s soup (33 feet.)
There was my friend Bryan, who not only carried heavy weight all throughout the day as the team captain, leading by example, but who then raced the course again later and won his heat. There was Phil who carried a log between his knees while going over the monkey bars, and then he carried other runners and acted as my ladder when I was going over the slippery wall. He carried a ruck the entire course that was easily 40lbs but routinely he held onto pipes and logs just to add to the difficulty.
I ran the beach alongside Keith, and unknowingly had the moment captured on film which is now one of my favorite running photos I have. The foot prints behind us a record of all the runners who were ahead of us as we ran, but there was no sense of urgency, it was a effort among friends and there was honor in that. Each member of our team I got to know on our nearly four hours out on the course that stretched eight miles and the time was precious.
Up the steep hills they carried anything they could find, just to make it harder, just to make it more interesting. I watched, I listened, I ran. I knew I’d never been involved in something so much about everything but my run. It was our run.
I have no photo, but there was Ryan who carried all manners of things during the run who I ran side by side with several times during the stretch and who carried ME physically over the finish line. I’ve never finished a race by fireman carry, so that was a first for me and one of the best ways to cap off a run. As we rolled into the finish line the competitive heat was lining up to take off.
I felt it ceremonious that we, the last of the Hurricane Heaters, had finished and the course that was ours for four hours and we were handing off to the next group to take on. It felt right.
The run was collective… shared… and as I sat alone after it was over watching the festival alive and vibrant in stark contrast to the silent grounds I had met that morning, I realized that more than anything we carried each other. Many went on to take on the course again that day but I’d like to think it wasn’t the same. On that run, I was reminded of the reason why I started in the first place.
“If you run, you are a runner. It doesn’t matter how fast or how far. It doesn’t matter if today is your first day or if you’ve been running for twenty years. There is no test to pass, no license to earn, no membership card to get. You just run.” -John Bingham
And so we did. And now I carry all of them with me. Not just as memories but as my friends.
Watch the amazing video my friend and fellow Hurricane Heater David made of our morning and where it all began… : http://www.vimeo.com/29865859.