I woke up early Saturday to drive to Baltimore, arriving near the start line of the Baltimore Marathon by 6:30 a.m.
I wasn’t running the marathon, though; I was there to watch the Back on My Feet Baltimore guys I’ve been following for months for an Urbanite magazine story. I’ve been focusing on two homeless runners who have been with the Philadelphia-based nonprofit, which aims to promote self-sufficiency in homeless people through running, since it started in March. One ran the half-marathon, the other the full. This was the climax of the story, the inevitable end of this first chapter of their training, both for life and for running.
As usual, I’m not going to steal my own thunder by telling you a lot of stuff that’s going in the story, which is slated to appear in the magazine’s December issue. But here’s what personally motivated and inspired me about watching these guys:
- They adjusted on the fly. Distance running invites self-doubt in even the most stable and experienced competitors. Professional runners psych themselves out of races with negative self-talk, and longtime recreational runners can fail to adjust to new realities when their goal times slip away. By the 16-mile mark, Arnold Shipman, a 50-year-old former heroin dealer and user, was exhausted, well off his goal pace of four hours (a very reasonable goal considering his pace on training runs) and walking up the hills that are usually his favorites. But he adjusted his mental goals to what his body seemed up for achieving that day, and was too busy pumping himself up to finish a marathon to focus on his missed goal. At first, his experience scared me — I’m trying to run something like four hours, too, and our training, amazingly, has gone pretty similarly. But then, I realized I was missing the whole point: The finish time doesn’t matter. It’s your ability to be mentally agile in the second half of a marathon, when you’re tired and want to give up entirely, that truly makes a race a victory. Shipman finished in just over five hours.
- They had fun. Michael Tate, a 48-year-old former cocaine user, jumped up and down, cheering, psyching up the crowd, before his half-marathon start. Once the race started, he totally fed off the spectators. He said he felt like a Spartan going into battle, or a high-school athlete wearing his jersey through the hallways on game day. When he passed a rock band, he sang along to the guitar riff. He grinned through large portions of the race (though, as you’ll read in the full story, he had his rough spots, too). I would like to run happy, too, and I plan to channel his glee during my own race in two weeks. Tate maintained 10:30-minute miles the whole race.
- They got by with a little help from their friends. Both guys ran with BOMF volunteers for large portions of their races. I personally ran maybe a total of ten miles with Shipman, broken up throughout the marathon, and three miles with Tate. This let me find out what they were thinking during the race — runners know that this, not the final finish time, is the real story — and it let me squeeze in my long run for the week, a comfy little 13-miler.
My favorite journalism professor at University of Colorado reminded us frequently that in times of crisis, while we must remain impartial observers, we are humans first and reporters second. We can hug people in emotional distress, express sympathy, show we care. In this case, I was a human AND a runner first. I may or may not have spurred Shipman to run, not walk, starting at mile 25 by running to the finish with him. I may or may not have changed the course of his thinking by providing a stream of positive thoughts when he was struggling. I may or may not have changed the course of the story for the better, and I sort of don’t care. It was more important to support another human, spurring him to do what he was capable of doing, and what he desperately wanted to do, than it was to remain impartial. Plus, did I see any other reporters with their running shoes on, tracking these guys through the runs of their lives? No, I did not. Impartial or not, I still win.
Two side notes: I tried Sports Beans, which will be served at the Marine Corps Marathon, to refuel on the fly midway through the race. They’re as awesome as one might imagine. Truly taste like regular ol’ jelly beans, and didn’t upset my stomach at all!
Also, I got my bib number for the Marine Corps Marathon, which is now only 11 days away! I’m Bib No. 5345. Inexplicably, this strikes me as a lucky number.