I fell in love with running the year Joan Benoit Samuelson won gold in the Los Angeles Olympics. Like most American families, we turned the television on when the games were on. In 1984, I was 11 years old, and gymnastics, swimming, and track & field were background noise from morning to night. We listened to most everything, but took our seats on the couch after commentators announced it was an American coming into the L.A. Coliseum to claim gold in the first Olympic Marathon that women were permitted to run. There she was, waving her white hat to the fans as she made her way toward the finish line. I moved closer to the television to catch the joy in her smile and the ovation of cheers that filled the packed stadium. I’m not sure I understood the significance of it being the first women’s Olympic Marathon, but I felt the significance in emotion. My eyes stung with tears, though I fought them back so I didn’t miss seeing a single stride. I felt happy watching her run and wished I’d tuned in to the entire race.
I became a runner that summer, and for more than 30 years, whether on trails, track, or roads, I’ve felt the joy of running. Sometimes I questioned whether I was successful because I enjoyed it or I enjoyed it because I was successful, but the chicken-or-egg dilemma didn’t really matter as long as I was joyfully running. Joan’s victory inspired me to chase national championships, records, and medals. In years past, I’ve tried to define what winning has meant and whether fast times really mattered. In my own races, I learned that sometimes winning didn’t feel that great, and other times, falling short and giving my all satisfied my spirit.
I won my first marathon in Chicago in 2005. Instead of reveling in the pleasure of meeting my goal, my first thought as I crossed the finish line was, I thought winning would feel better than this. The truth was, that day I ran anxious, a bit reckless and with something to prove. My demeanor felt ugly, and from that single race I still have permanent scowl lines between my eyes.
In contrast, one of the highlights of my career was finishing second at the 2003 World Cross Country Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland. Despite the fact our country was newly at war in Iraq, I ran confident and grateful to be traveling safely and representing the United States. I shot off the starting line with a mix of peace, national pride, and the intent to win. On the 7.9K course, I ran hard, threw in surges, charged into the turns, and accelerated out of them only to be outkicked in the final 100 meters by Werknesh Kidane of Ethiopia. I had given all I had and felt proud to be in a sport barren of national politics but rich in human strength. I ran with belief and perseverance, traits that allowed me to thrive and give my best. Even though I missed my goal, I felt fulfilled and satisfied.
Once I learned what satisfied me in my own races, it became easier to analyze what I appreciated in others. Aside from Joan’s Olympic gold, there have been other performances that have motivated and touched me, but not all of them have been wins. In fact, I’ve been inspired more often by runners who have lost with great character than by those who have come in first. In that same Olympic Marathon, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess of Switzerland staggered through the final quarter mile. Leaning hazardously to the left, she barely found the strength to move forward. She would’ve been disqualified if helped, so she frantically shooed away the medical staff that clustered around her watching to catch her if she collapsed. After an agonizing final lap of the coliseum, she made it to the finish in 37th place. The heat and dehydration had stifled her stride but hadn’t crushed her spirit. Even as I admired her, I remember thinking that the distance must be a bit dangerous, and for years the memory of her finish made me hesitant to run a marathon.
In the 2004 Olympic Marathon, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima of Brazil was leading the race when he was attacked by a defrocked Catholic priest. He could have played the victim, wallowing in the unfairness of having been cheated out of his chance to win gold. Instead he celebrated by running the final meters as if he were an airplane coming in for a landing. His arms outstretched, he wove across the lanes, smiling, celebrating bronze. The entire room of people I watched the race with cheered as he crossed the line.
Watching someone win a race is always entertaining, but watching the character with which people compete is truly inspiring and revealing. Bill Duley, my coach in middle school and high school, encouraged me to stay at the finish line shaking hands with competitors until the last runner came through. The gesture was meant to practice good sportsmanship, but I was also rewarded with good feelings after seeing the impact my kindness had on my competition. My professional coach Joe Vigil let me know in our first meeting together that I couldn’t become a better runner without first becoming a better person. He helped mold my life philosophy, “If you have it, share it,” because I learned all that we possess, whether time, money, or knowledge, becomes valuable only the moment it is shared. Both these coaches showed me that building character and being kind and gracious were far better virtues than running fast.
Recently I rewatched the coverage of Joan’s Olympic run. I first thought it was her victory that inspired so many, but it was something bigger than that. There was something in the way she won that made her so magnetizing. The minute Joan appears from the tunnel, I see now, her stride around the track is both humble and powerful. Her face is focused yet welcoming. The simple beauty of her win, her acknowledgment of the crowd, her recognition of the camera and, by proxy, the billions of people watching on television - that was an evocative nod to history. It was the first time the women’s marathon was an Olympic event. She shared the moment with humility and gratitude.
Yes, discipline and hard work are the hallmark of successful athletes, but more intriguing is the spirit and ethics of performance, which reveals a runner’s true character.
When I was 11, I couldn’t have told you exactly what moved me about Joan’s win. But now I think she must have known her life was going to change when she crossed that finish line. She had to understand the historical significance of being the first gold medalist in the women’s Olympic Marathon. Certainly she was tired. Her recently-operated-on knee must have been sore. She must have felt jetlagged from travel and dehydrated from the California heat. But no one would have noticed because of the simple joy on her face, the happiness she shared with all those watching.
Along with Joan, and most likely because of Joan, I too feel fulfilled when I run. Even though earning trophies and nailing fast times continue to be goals of mine, I have come to realize that integrity is more important than records or place. Running fulfilled and with joy seems to quiet my inner critic, banish the burden of expectation, and even override the pain. Whether in victory or defeat, if we can pass on a warm smile, a pat on the back, or a few encouraging words, we can inspire in a way a stopwatch or medal can’t define.
About the author Deena Michelle Kastor is an american long-distance runner. She holds American records in the marathon, half-marathon, and numerous road distances. She won the bronze medal in the women's marathon at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. She is also an eight-time national champion in cross country.
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Source: Runner's World (www.runnersworld.com)