My father was an enlisted man; he was in the Air Force. Like many immigrant sons not only did he see the military as a chance to escape a life doomed to working in the local factory, but he was proud to be American. His parents came from Sweden through Ellis Island in the early part of the century not knowing the language or a soul beyond the relative who sponsored them. My grandma became a janitor for the school. My grandpa worked construction. My dad wanted more.
His timing was impeccable. He enlisted after Korea but before Vietnam and when he entered the workforce he had some college credits under his belt and became a computer programer in the 60’s.
He died May 24, 2002. It was Memorial Day weekend. Soldiers in crisp uniforms played taps, fired their guns, and folded a flag and gave it to my mother. The warm spring sunshine was an affront to the emotions we were feeling.
Before he died I signed up for a 5k where the proceeds went to cancer research and gave him my race bib. “I’m running for you,” I said. After he died in 2002 I ran marathons in his honor, four in all. I ran with Team In Training. You promise to fund-raise for cancer research and they train you to complete an endurance sport of your choice.
The second marathon was the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. It was 2005, the height of the War in Iraq. For that one I held a casino night fundraiser that raised about $25,000. This was the marathon for which I trained the hardest. I was also a team mentor to help other people finish their race and complete their fundraising goals. My mom and brother were able to attend a dinner where it was announced I was the #3 fundraiser in the country. Mom whispered, “Dad would have been so proud.”
A marathon is 26.2 miles. In ancient Greece Phidippides was tasked by a Greek general to run from Marathon to Athens to warn that the Persians were coming to attack. Phidippides made the 26 mile trek in about 3 hours and then promptly died. (He had previously run 140 miles each way to Sparta to ask for military back up, fought a battle in heavy armor all day and then was asked to run to Athens. And you thought your boss was a task master!) It is for this reason you will see marathon runners sometimes wear shirts that say, “Why couldn’t Phidippiedes die at mile 20?”
The extra .2 miles was added to the official marathon length in 1908 during the Olympics in London so the finish line could end in front of King Edward VII’s royal box. This is why some people call out, “God save the Queen!” at mile 26. But most people at mile 26 are just trying to make it to the finish line.
Even though I trained with the team I decided to run my own race and not stay with a running partner. I had run up Torrey Pines Hill every Monday night to increase my endurance and speed and lifted weights in the gym to increase my strength. Until recently, this was the most powerful I ever felt physically. I think I weighed about 125 lbs.
But at mile 17 (damn that mile 17) I was fading fast. I had run over the Potomac, through a forest, past the Washington Monument. The end was at the Lincoln Monument. My knee was bound tightly in medical tape so my patella wouldn’t move but the strain was beginning to come. The pain was sharp.
I was running alone with no one to divert my attention and wore no iPod for safety reasons. I thought I was going to die. Slowing my pace I saw people I knew pass me. Everyone wears a timer chip in their shoelaces and loved ones can follow your progress online or via text. I had been at a good pace, but suddenly I had slowed. Henri sent me a text. “R u ok?”
Marines were running past me. People running for cancer were running past me. Everyone’s shirts are decorated with bubble paint. Mine had my name, “Lisa,” on it and “4 Dad” on it too. I read the shirts around me. “In memory of Mom,” “In honor of Jack.” Fallen heroes listed on each runner’s back. A man was running with a streamer of names of soldiers who had died in Iraq. The emotions are overwhelming when you see pictures of children who are sick and yellow ribbons begging for husbands to come home.
No one could do anything for these lost people, yet we could run and we could remember them. But I was ready to stop. I swallowed Gu, which is designed to give you instant energy. I felt nothing. I poured water on my head. It didn’t help. An African American marine was standing at the top of the hill and he was looking at me, watching me falter and fail. He called out to me.
“I see you, Lisa!”
I looked up at him.
“That’s right, I see you. I’m calling out to you because I know you can do this. And I see you’re doing this for your father. And he knows you can do this too!”
Suddenly I was soaring. My face exploded into a smile.
Soldiers do more than just protect us; they sacrifice their own lives to serve. Whether in a war or natural disaster they enter when others flee and stay until the job is done. Their courage, honor and loyalty inspire us to think beyond ourselves for the greater good. I respect them. And thank them for doing what I could never do.
“HURA, Marine” I mouthed as I passed him, never stopping to look back until I had crossed that finish line.
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