Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 19 Jun 2005 08:41:07 -0400

Graduation Day

RUNNING COMMENTARY 576

A first marathon is like a first love. No matter how beautifully or badly it goes, you will never forget it.

I can't recall my breakfast menu this morning or much about the run that preceded it. But I can recount in loving detail my first marathon day. And that was 38 years ago, at Boston.

That first marathon day can change you in ways that you couldn't have imagined before running the race. I had intended to finish the one marathon and then retire to fun-and-fitness running.

But I couldn't stop at that one. It led to dozens more marathons plus a few ultras -- and finally, just this year, to coaching my first group of marathoners.

The Eugene Running Company and SportHill sponsored what we called a "Marathon Team." Graduation day for the program, which began in January, came five months later at Newport on the Oregon Coast. That evening I wrote to 16 graduates of my first Team:

"I've never been prouder of more runners on a single day. Each of you gave me chills for your own reasons as you hit your finish line at Newport -- in a race that didn't start at seven o'clock this morning but last winter in your first training run with this Team.

"Even if you didn't run the time you'd hope for, remember that veteran marathoners say the same thing about their races as pilots do about their landings: any that you can walk away from is a good one. All 16 of you finished and can walk away proudly."

The greatest benefit of this program wasn't the training plan or the coaching. It was the support that these runners shared for five months of Sundays.

"You helped each other do what you might not have done alone," I told them. "Ultimately that is what you'll remember most about this marathon."

The Team ranged in age from 20 to 57, and in time from 3:25 to 5:24. One man was a grandfather, and one woman was pregnant.

Ten of the 16 runners finished their first marathon. One of them, Laura McClain, could have spoken for all when she wrote to me:

"I had never been on a team of any kind, nor did I participate in sports in school. I was too shy and scared. This group was the first organized sports thing I've ever done, at almost 40.

"I was so extremely nervous the first couple Sundays I thought I would throw up. It wasn't so much the running I was scared of, though I was definitely scared of not keeping up. I was nervous about getting lost, wearing the wrong thing, tripping or looking foolish somehow.

"Anyway, after the first time I talked with you, I knew I could finish the marathon. Doing it was as big of an emotional breakthrough for me as it was physically."

You never forget anything about a breakthrough this big. It changes how you choose your next test, face it and then graduate from it.

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