The Finish Line

I’ll often get asked, “What race are you most proud of?”

The expected answer is probably my Boston Marathon victory in 2014, or maybe the race that won me a silver medal in Athens. But while I take a lot of pride in my podium finishes, some of the most memorable races weren’t about where I finished, but how I finished.

The 2013 New York City marathon was an emotional one for many reasons. The bombings in Boston the previous April were still fresh in everyone’s mind, as was the cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon due to Hurricane Sandy. The significance of the 2013 race certainly wasn’t lost on me. I go into every marathon training to win, but I thought a victory in this race would be particularly special.

Unfortunately, a series of injuries leading up to the race resulted in me being undertrained by the time race day arrived. I knew that I was underprepared to compete with the best marathoners in the world, but I decided to give it a shot. I started off okay, but at mile 19, any hopes I had of placing in the top three were dashed. My body just couldn’t do it. I was hurting and I knew my race was over. The lack of adequate training and aggressive early pace had drained me. I couldn’t take another step, and had to stop running entirely. At that point, I thought about the sweep van that picks up the elite athletes that drop out of the race. I knew it would be possible to get picked up by this gigantic life preserver, and be supplied with food and a hot drink. But I also knew that someway or somehow, I needed to cross the finish line that day. I wanted to do it for all the people who had supported me up to that point — and I wanted to do it for all those that would have loved to finish the 2013 Boston Marathon, and the 2012 NYC Marathon. I was committed to getting to the finish line, even if I had to walk there.

With a few miles to go, another runner named Mike Cassidy caught up to me. Mike is a local elite runner runner from Staten Island, and for one reason or another, he became my strength to finish the race that day. I had never met Mike until a mutual friend introduced us that morning. Admittedly, Mike probably never expected to be running next to me that day, but the fact that he did kind of illustrates the beauty of this sport. Everyone comes into a race with a specific goal – whether it’s to win, hit a certain time, qualify for a different race or raise money for charity. But on a fundamental level, a marathon is a race in which thousands of people share the singular goal of making it across that finish line. Mike Cassidy saw I was struggling, and did what he could to help me keep moving forward. Many before him tried to encourage me, but I couldn’t even think about it until Mike came by.

With two miles to go, we encouraged each other to finish the race strong. We became each other’s life preservers. I’ll admit by the end of the race, he was stronger than I was. He could have left me in the dust, but he stayed there with me at my pace. At that point, I wasn’t Olympic medalist Meb Keflezighi, I was just a fellow runner. And he was just a runner.

We finished that race hand-in-hand, and remain friends to this day.

I like to tell this story because it highlights one of the unique aspects of marathons – and really running in general. This is an activity that brings all kinds of people together. It’s a sport that doesn’t discriminate based on race, size or age. That’s a big reason why you always hear the word “inspiring” attached to running events. Watching a big basketball or football game is inspiring in its own way because you’re watching these amazing athletes perform at a high-level. But watching a marathon is inspiring because if you take a close look at the people running, you’ll notice someone in the field who’s not so different from you.

There are a select few people who run in a marathon with the intention of winning; I’m fortunate enough to be among them. But at the heart and soul of this sport are the people who have no illusions of winning or even finishing in the top 100. They’re running for themselves, in memory of someone else or for a great charity. And that’s why none of the spectators watching the New York City marathon clear out after the lead pack passes. People stay for hours and hours to support those individuals who are running just to get across that finish line.

As I prepare to run in my tenth New York City marathon this Sunday, I’m not sure what this next race holds for me. The biggest common denominator between this marathon and the very first one I ran is that I am going to run to win. I always do. To me, “running to win” doesn’t mean getting first place, it means getting the best out of yourself. That’s how I train and that’s what I expect. This year, in addition to competing amongst the world class marathoners, representing the USA and my sponsors, I have the privilege of being an ambassador for Team For Kids, a youth running program created by New York Road Runners.

In short, I have many great reasons to Run to Win.

While marathons are amongst the most public things you can do, the miles that really count are the ones that happen when nobody is watching. To most runners, those are the miles where they find peace.

I spent the last week of training for this upcoming marathon in Mammoth Lakes, California. The altitude and scenery makes for a great place to run. I’d start my training at 5:30 AM to acclimate myself to the 9:50 AM marathon start time on the east coast. This is just one of the many tiny things I do to try to get my body right before a big race. Only thing is, when you start running at 5:30 AM, it’s pitch black all around you.

One morning, I was running in the pitch black and I felt like a crazy person. I couldn’t even see where I was going. But in the distance, I noticed this tiny floating light. What is that? I picked up my pace a bit, and as I got closer, I noticed that it was a guy on his morning run wearing a headlamp. At first I was thinking, What’s he doing up? But at the same time, I felt this deep connection to him. Here’s someone so dedicated to running that he doesn’t even wait for sunlight to get started. Who knows what other responsibilities he has waiting for him, but he’s carved out this time for himself to get better. That’s inspiration.

One of the reasons runners feel this intense sense of camaraderie is because sometimes running just hurts.

It doesn’t matter how often you do it or how much you accomplish, in general, not running is a lot easier than running. So I think it’s the fact that this activity is inherently difficult that ultimately bonds us. When I stop and talk to another runner, we discuss what we’re running for, what we hope to accomplish and what we have accomplished. No matter who it is, we’re all working towards something. As runners, we eventually get to a point where it is more painful not to run, than to run.

A lot of people wonder how you get started as a runner. That’s what seems the most daunting. They’re either waiting for the right time or want some sort of specific direction. But it really comes down to just waking up, and putting one foot in front of the other. When you run, there’s nowhere to place the blame – and there’s something refreshing about that. You determine the pace — only you.

I didn’t come out of the womb running a marathon in two hours. In fact, I think a lot of my success relates to being okay with small progress. I started out running the mile, and then moved on to the 5K, then the 10K and then the half-marathon. In total, I’ve run roughly 100,000 miles in my lifetime, and it certainly didn’t come 26.2 miles at a time.

While running does get easier over time, it doesn’t get that much easier.

No matter how many marathons I run in, even when I know I’m ready, there’s always this uneasiness at the back of my mind going into it. There’s this little bubble of doubt inside myself, which usually surfaces during the bus ride to the starting line, that asks, Why am I doing this again? I know it’s going to be painful. No matter how much you train, there’s always going to be a point in a race when you don’t feel like running anymore. Yes, you can feel a natural high caused by endorphins – but endorphins won’t save you when you hit the wall at mile 17 or, if you’re lucky, mile 20. And every person who runs a marathon hits a wall at some point. It’s the point in the run where your mind really has to take over where the body is failing. That’s when you look inwardly, but also think about those people around you who are cheering in support. That’s when you’re most thankful to part of this amazing community.

I’ve finished plenty of races and immediately thought, I’m never running in another marathon. But then, here I am. I think as a runner, you generally feel as good as your last race. The thing is, running a good race feels so good, that it more than makes up for the disappointment of running a bad one. I live for that feeling.

On Sunday, I’m just going to be one of many people chasing a goal. How will I achieve it? Well, I’m going to wake up, and put one foot in front of the other.

See you at the finish line.