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

Sat, 12 May 2007 06:00:02 -0400

Falling Short


Every Marathon Team of mine has one runner even more memorable than the others. With the first five teams it was for a triumph -- a finish against the odds, a big PR, a Boston qualifier, a selfless act.

(The last came when a doctor named Tod stopped at 22 miles to assist a fallen runner. Tod figures again in the story that follows.)

On the latest team I remember someone who fell a mile short of finishing. She didn't fail. She ran harder than anyone on my teams ever has, and for as long as she could. If anyone failed, it was I for not coaching her quite well enough.

Whitney is a college student, a graduate of my University of Oregon running classes. When word went out that Eugene would have a marathon this spring, she and a dozen other students signed on for the race and with my training group.

Before taking on the teaching of college-age runners, I shared the prejudices that the old have about them: more interested in sitdown entertainment than the gritty realities of long running.

Not true, I quickly learned. Not true with those who volunteer for my classes, anyway. Especially not true for those who don't want to stop when the class offerings run out at 10K training.

These runners run for the same reasons that their elders do. If something inspires them and someone advises them, they keep going.

Like a proud papa (or grandpa), I waited at the recent Eugene Marathon finish line for these runners complete this graduation exercise. My clipboard held a predicted time range for each of our 61 runners, and Whitney was overdue.

Then I was told, "I saw one of your runners on a stretcher at the 25-mile mark." I asked for a description, which didn't match Whitney's.

But the more names I checked off the list, the more likely the fallen runner had to be her. One of her sorority-sister teammates finally confirmed it.

By then she was headed for a hospital emergency room. With her was Tod from our team, an ER doctor from that same hospital. He was off duty that day and had just finished the marathon himself, but he monitored Whitney's treatment for a suspected case of hyponatremia (low sodium).

The best outcome would have been for the IV to act as a miracle drug, and for Whitney to jump off the hospital bed and say, "I'm going back to the course and walk that final mile." Her doctors and parents wouldn't have allowed this, even if she'd felt up to it. Which she didn't.

Whitney was the last individual to appear in photos on the Marathon Team DVD. This was taken at 12 miles, when she still could smile for the camera. The results list carried the note "ran bravely" instead of a time.

My hope was to honor Whitney at our victory party the next Sunday. We would return to the marathon course as a group to run the final mile with her. Where the finish line had been, I would drape a "finisher" medal around her neck and give the same hug that all the others had received there a week earlier.

Whitney didn't know of this plot. But she balked at joining us that day at all, feeling she had nothing to celebrate as the only incomplete marathoner at the party.

Good for her. She wants to finish the right way, the only true way. A young runner who thinks this way will go far, and not just as a runner.
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