Grit Happens: A True Story

I’ve meant to tell this story forever. But time sped by and the details became murky. Still, I’ve been left with a remarkable feeling—awe and inspiration mixed with sadness—for almost 17 years.

But now, a few recent events have prompted me to dig deep into my memory and tell you about it. First, the Boston Marathon bombings. Second, the creation of a friend’s blog called “More Good than Bad” which posts stories about the good things happening in the world—a place to visit after watching the violence-filled news that permeates our air waves and high-speed connections day after day. And finally, Diana Nyad’s successful swim from Cuba to the United States at a mere 64 years young.

So, back up to the 1996 Boston Marathon and away we go.

I was a year out of college and working for an ad agency that paid me at the poverty line to wear really short skirts and flirt with the client. (I wasn’t up to speed on harassment laws at the time—I was just a corn-fed white girl looking for a keg party, ok?)  I split an apartment with three other girls, bartended at night to rise just above the poverty line, and had fun, fun, fun. I ran to stay in shape but generally still thought of marathoners as one sandwich short of a picnic. Or a hammer short of a full tool kit. Or assumed the wheel was spinning but the hamster was dead. Still, I admired them. From afar.

The day of the 1996 Boston Marathon I had steered clear of the city. Then, after the event was well over, I met up with a friend for drinks at a bar near the finish line.  It was a memorably stressful evening as I had to decide: Corona with a lime or without? Mozz sticks or nachos? (Folks: this was way before I knew anything about refined carbohydrates or the Glycemic Index or saturated fats. In other words, life was perfect). As the sky darkened, and my friend and I were an hour deep into drinking and eating (Corona with lime, of course!  How could I even question that?), I happened to glance out the window and notice a woman running down Boylston St. What caught my attention was that she had some major physical challenges (not to mention she was probably in her mid-to-late 60s). It’s difficult to explain how she was running, but it was as if she hopped forward on one foot, paused, and then dragged her other foot in line—the foot being dragged looked as if it had no ability to hold weight, or that it was possibly paralyzed. Regardless, I remember being impressed she was going out for a run at such a busy time of the evening. And thinking that it must take her an hour to run a mile, and wasn’t it uncomfortable?

But as she got closer, an aching sensation spread through my insides. She had a number on. A Boston Marathon bib pinned to her shirt. Now, my little grasshoppers, when I say the marathon was over, I mean over. Cheering crowds, evaporated. Police presence, gone. Finish line, dismantled. Aid stations long since packed up. The marathon course had been open to traffic for quite a while. What was thought to be the last runner had crossed the finish line hours beforehand. Hours.

But here she was. This warrior of a woman with a significant disability had started her day in Hopkinton, and was finally two blocks from the finish. I’m sure the last 13 miles (if not more) had been devoid of aid stations. I’m sure as she ran through the center of Wellesley, no one even knew she was in the race—just a woman out for a slow, slow jog. Here’s what went down next:

Me: Maggie! That woman is running!

Maggie: So?

Me: No, I mean running. As in the marathon!

Maggie: Can’t be, it’s over.

Me: But she has a number on – look!!

Maggie: Oh. My. God. She’s still running the marathon!?

After about 30 seconds of stunned silence, we threw money on the table and sprinted out the door and onto Boylston. Maggie went to one side of her, and I to the other. We started clapping, cheering, shouting. And crying. Hard. As in Niagara Falls down the sides of our faces. The woman nodded in acknowledgement and carried on. Over the course of those remaining blocks, other people on the street began to understand what was going on, and joined our cheering squad. And, honest to God, we became a random group of 18-20 sobbing strangers jogging next to her, witnessing one of the most spectacular displays of grit, determination and hard work. Hard, hard, work.

Folks, we never got her name. She wasn’t talkative at the end and she just wanted to go home (can you blame her?) and she gently, but firmly, pushed away our offer to help her home. (As if someone tough enough to run a 7+ hour marathon with a major physical impediment would need our help.) Her name would never show up in the list of finishers, because there is a cut-off time in most events like this after which an athlete “doesn’t count” in the record books. But it seemed obvious she wasn’t out there for the glory and the recognition anyway. She was out there to finish what she started—her other motivations we’ll never know.

See, it’s easy for us to glorify elite athletes and marvel at their talent. But I’ve been around endurance racing to know that the people who work the hardest—who experience the most suffering and have to dig the deepest and overcome the biggest obstacles—are not those who come in first, but in many cases, those who come in last. And while I don’t know who our mystery runner was, I want everyone to know that she existed and what she accomplished that day.

Sad and awful things happen in the world—even at a marathon. But there are also people like this runner who remind me that it’s easier to persevere when surrounded by adoration and attention. But those who can still find their wings alone in the dark and silence truly embody the spirit behind Boston Strong.

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