Finishing Kick: Right Here, Right Now

By July 26, 2007Running Times Magazine

Seizing the moment in the middle of a marathon

By Rachel Toor
As featured in the July/August 2007 issue of Running Times Magazine

Las Vegas is an anywhere-but-here kind of town. A stroll down the Strip takes you past Paris, Venice, Egypt, New York, even the circus. You could be anywhere — except where you actually are. It’s a fine way to get away.

Running a marathon can likewise lift you out of the drudgery of daily life. You make flash friends in the porta-potty line and have delightful, unmemorable conversations those first miles that skim and flit and never light on touchy subjects. It’s about here and now.

In December, before the anemic winter sun rose over the American desert, I started down the Strip with my 4:00 marathon pace group. As is often the case, a handful stayed close to chat. Eric, in a Twin Cities Marathon singlet, worked for a medical device company; he’d been in Vegas for a week and had been wining and dining surgeons. Chris, lively and loud, was the commander of a unit of 160 airmen at Vandenberg Air Force Base. He was working on a second master’s degree and, after we’d warmed up for a few miles, offered that his friends said he looked like an anorexic Vin Diesel. “No,” I said, “Vin Diesel looks like a fat you.”

We learned the names of others in the group, had the usual exchanges about other races, other places, but Chris and I were talking, not chatting. At around mile six he said, “You probably think we won’t agree on a lot of things, but I bet you’re wrong.” I cautioned him about making assumptions. One of my all-time favorite running partners, I told him, was a career Navy guy, a captain whose underpants are now under glass at the Navy Museum in Washington, D.C.

Ted Triebel, known as “Hawk” to his fighter pilot buddies, was shot down in Vietnam wearing his last pair of clean boxers — those his wife had sent him for Valentine’s Day. Each day Ted, in solitary confinement, washed out his shorts, red hearts and all, and hung them high on the line, letting the other pilots know he was still alive. Over the many years I lived in North Carolina, Ted and I covered hundreds of miles talking about books and movies, that problematic war, and the military situation over the last decade. He taught me a lot.

Ted also moderated minor skirmishes and squabbles among those in our group. Ted tempered us, reminded us of what was important. It’s easy to be committed to one’s own point of view; rallying others, getting people to come together and see commonalities is a special art. I learned about leadership from Ted.

Last summer I went to the museum that the Hanoi Hilton has become. I saw Ted’s cell, wandered the tiny courtyard where the downed pilots had been allowed to exercise, and read propaganda about how well the captured Americans had been treated. I lit a candle in front of the Buddha and cried, remembering the gentle way Ted had talked about the ravages of that terrible time. And then I shuddered, realizing a few days had gone by when I hadn’t once thought of all the young men and women who are overseas right now, right this minute, fighting, and too often, dying.

Because of Ted, I recognized Chris: a man who understands honor, duty, and country in ways that are deeper than semantics. A man who could be counted on to protect those he felt responsible for, whether his own unit or the people of his country. It wasn’t rhetoric to him; it was real. I admired and respected him more than I could tell him during a four hour marathon.

I asked if he’d read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” a beautiful book about war that makes your stomach ache and your soul hurt. He answered by quoting from it. He was, he said, going to Iraq in April. I think I gasped. Is it possible, in a few handfuls of miles, to care about someone you don’t even know? Chris would be carrying on his broad shoulders, in his big heart, the burdens of this complicated war. We talked about Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Aristotle. We talked about women in the military and affirmative action. “I hate it,” he said. “I don¹t want anyone to think I needed any help in getting to where I am. I pulled myself up. Others can do it too.” I thought about the things he carried.

The conversation ambled to geography around mile eleven. Chris said he lived near where the movie “Sideways” had taken place. We agreed that it was a good, though not great, movie. But, I said, it has one of my favorite scenes.

“The one where he starts talking about pinot?” Chris guessed.

It’s a wrenching moment — two crafted monologues. Hapless Miles explaining why he feels so strongly about pinot noir, how he appreciates it for its difficulty, its complexity. Maya responding with her own poignant take on why she loves wine. These two people, passionate about the same thing, so connected in this moment, so poised to come together — and then missing. Going sideways.

At mile twenty, having had no reliable mile markers throughout the race and beginning to realize that we were probably faster than 4:00 pace, I slowed and sent a bunch of people ahead. The anorexic Vin Diesel was in that group and I never saw him again.

I didn’t know his last name, but I knew that I wouldn’t forget Chris. After the race that day in Vegas, I thought about Iraq. I thought about Afghanistan, Korea, Hanoi, North Carolina. Anywhere but here. I know you can¹t ever get away, not really. You can, however, if you’re lucky, have small moments, even during a marathon, even in the middle of the desert. I try to save the moments, try to keep from going sideways. That is all I can do. That, and remember to think about those who aren’t here — right here, right now.