Yesterday was an extremely busy day for me. In the morning, I limped the Royal Parks Half Marathon. In the afternoon, I sang Handel in the beautiful parish church of Great Missenden. And in the evening, I went to Taekwondo with my two eldest (8 and 6). I didn’t get any writing done.
I was running the Royal Parks Half Marathon for The Wegener’s Trust (www.wegeners.org.uk). All the training I should have done for the race gave way to editing my novel post-book deal. I finished in 2 hours and 54 minutes. This put me 14,453th out of 14,813 runners. It’s not exactly boasting material.
But I saw some things I’d never have seen from the front:
I saw two men running for Guy’s and St. Thomas’, with photographs of a baby hooked up to an incubator pinned to their shirts. Printed under the photographs were the words, ‘For Isaac,’ with a date of birth and a date of death separated by a few days. I couldn’t see the path for tears, and one of the men nodded at me and said, ‘We’ve done a lot of that.’ For a brief moment, I was allowed to share their terrible grief, and it was a privilege.
I saw the casualties. If you’re running fast, you can’t see the people you leave behind. At the back of the pack, you see the love and care poured out by the St John’s Ambulance volunteers and the marshals, and the running companions who won’t leave their friends until they can finish the race together. The frontrunners show humanity’s potential, but the back shows humanity itself.
I saw grit. Real running takes grit, but it brings glory. To finish a half marathon in an hour and a half is an achievement anyone understands. But to finish a half marathon at all when you are blind, or have a limp, or a debilitating medical condition, takes bushels and bushels of grit. At the back, you see grit in spades.
And I saw my son. There’s more space at the back, and the smaller numbers meant that when my husband and eldest son cheered from somewhere between mile 6 and mile 7, my son (aged 8) was able to run alongside me to the charity cheering point at mile 7 and then wait there for my husband to catch up. Holding his hand while he told me I could do it is my most precious memory of the race.
I have a friend who runs – properly. She’s always wanted to do the London Marathon, but she doesn’t want to do it unless she can be sure she’ll finish in less than four hours. I don’t run properly. Even though I trained hard for the London in 2011, it still took me over six hours to finish. But I did it. And unless my friend embraces the possibility that one might take more than four hours and still have an experience worth having, she’ll leave a great dream of her life unachieved.
What dreams do we leave unexplored through our arbitrary definitions of success? I’ve been lucky enough to achieve two of my dreams – a happy marriage and a publication contract. But neither is cut and dried. A happy marriage takes work. A publication contract is only the beginning of a whole new story. Let’s engage with failure. Let’s talk, not only about the people at the front, but about the depth, energy and determination of the people at the back.