Relentless Forward Progress

Somewhere around mile twenty four, I saw someone in an orange vest behind me. My legs were cramping and my feet were blistered. Thank God, I thought, The race sweeper. I’m the last one out here. He’ll pull me off the course and end this sufferfest.

It was just another runner in an orange vest. Shit. I had to keep moving.

I’m nobody’s idea of an athlete. Slow, uncoordinated, nearsighted, with poor balance and prone to weight gain, I was always the last kid picked for any team in school. I was something of a Renaissance man, which is to say I sucked at every sport. Now I’m getting old, and my never-very-good best days are behind me.

But I can run, because any able-bodied person can run, so that’s what I do. Not fast, and not gracefully, because I’m built like an undersized linebacker. But I run.

I don’t love it. I’m perfectly happy on the couch with a plate of warm chocolate-chip cookies. Besides, running puts me in the company of people who are younger, faster, more athletically accomplished, and more beautiful than I. It twangs and strums the strings of my insecurities. But it’s necessary for health and fitness, so I run.

It has its benefits. It’s a pretty satisfying feeling when you defy others’ expectations to do things no one thought you could do. It’s something else entirely when you do things you didn’t believe you could do. Suddenly, the light goes on. That voice in your head that says, “I can’t?” It’s just a wuss who doesn’t want to try. You won’t listen to it next time. You know now that the voice lies. You will do all the hard things, and you won’t make excuses, and you won’t listen to your own doubts and fears, because they were bullshit last time and they’re bullshit this time. If you choose to walk away from a challenge—well, that’s a choice, and you’ll own it. There is no such thing as “I can’t.”

At mile twenty seven, I knew I’d make it to the aid station at mile twenty nine.

Sometimes I ask the important people in my life to do hard things, because sometimes life requires the doing of hard things. Beyond that, I want them to know that their own voices that say “I can’t” are just as wrong as mine. How can I make that ask if I’m not willing to push myself to accomplish things I think are beyond me? I will not be that guy who asks of other people what he will not risk himself. I will not be that man who seeks to control a woman to compensate for feelings of disempowerment that the world foists upon him. There’s a lot of that in today’s world, and it isn’t my way.

At the aid station at mile twenty nine, it became unthinkable to drop out less than two miles from the finish. I’d get there if I had to crawl.

I will do the difficult things in life that I don’t want to do. I will do them even if they hurt. I will not quit despite wanting nothing more than for someone to give me permission to quit. I will lead by example, not by diktat. The people to whom I mean something will say, “If Jeff can do what he does, I guess I have no excuses.”

The barbecue at the finish line warmed my insides and restored some brain function. I looked at the finisher’s medal in my hand. Is this mine? Did I really do this?

Life gives you plenty of opportunities to sit out a challenge. But the true adventure begins at the edge of the known world; that is, just beyond what you believe to be the limit of your capabilities. Somewhere past that point are things you’ve never seen and can’t imagine. Someone has to bring back reports of what’s out there. Why not me? Why not you?

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