“Did you hear that a plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center Towers?” read the email from my sister as I sat at work on September 11th 2001. I was just shy of turning 34 years old on September 13th. And so began a journey of a track, a watch and a goal. It was a journey filled along the way with highlights, with joy, with sadness, with birth and death, and all that life gives us between those moments. It was a journey that lead to personal discovery. A journey that was ultimately private and incredibly personal but one, as time moved on, that I would (and I had to) slowly pull back the curtain upon and give people a glimpse.
Running is my passion. Gifted as I am with speed and strength, I am more greatly blessed by the joy running delivers to me. I love the sport. I coach. I train. I compete. Without too much interruption I repeat the cycle every year. Maybe it’s being from New England but running season to season is a gift. Winter, despite its harshness, is actually a beautiful time of year for long runs. Running in the woods deep into December I feel as if I am cheating time, not having to be exorcised to running on the roads. Winter’s back is ultimately broken yielding to spring. Summer’s heat replaces winter’s cold wind as the enemy, giving way to the gift that is autumn. Technically speaking September 13th is still part of the summer season, but in New England dates past Labor Day yield themselves to belonging to Fall, New England’s grand dame of seasons. Fittingly that’s where our story begins.
Like many Americans on the days after the attacks of September 11th I sat wondering, worrying, and saddened by the horror of that day. Let’s be honest, most of America was in a catatonic state of shock during the month of September. We were collectively sad and mad, but mostly powerless. What could we do? There was no fixing the problem. There were no aid workers to be sent to help people rebuild homes and lives such as is the case after a hurricane, a flood or a wildfire. There was simply massive destruction in America’s most iconic city. A physical void that palled in comparison to what was lost on that day, for those in the planes, in the towers, and across the country.
What do you do when punched in the gut, leaning over gasping for air, to look up unable to see the enemy gone like a ghost in the night? People gave blood, money, prayers, support….What could I do? Could I really do anything to make a difference? These thoughts ran through my head on September
13th 2001 standing on a track in Beverly Massachusetts as I turned 34 years old. 1 Mile. That’s what I said. 1 mile, under 5 minutes. 1 mile, under 5 minutes, on September 13th. 1 mile under 5 minutes, on September 13th, by myself. Do it for as many years as you can. That was it. It was positive, it was moving forward. I owned it.
The years rolled by. Every year the birthdays came. Most years it was one and done, under 5. A couple attempts required me to “invite” myself back to the track to get under 5. Only one year did I not do run on my actual birthday, traveling on business, completing the sub5 a couple days later. But year in and year out, a sub 5 minute mile was in the books. Then it stopped or so I thought. September 13th 2016.
5:06. 10 days later, 5:06. No more. What’s 6 seconds? For a mile, it’s everything. So I stopped. It was a good run. 15 years in a row of sub5. At 49 the body said, “Sorry, that’s too fast. Time to move on”.
December 13th 2016. An accident in Mexico nearly ended the life of a dear colleague’s husband. By the grace of God and divine intervention, Joseph was brought back to life on a beach in Mexico after a devastating spinal cord injury. Arriving back to New England, fighting through many setbacks, he fights to get back on his feet, when doctors said he would never walk again.
Part of his recovery was asking friends and strangers to join him in his challenge by taking on one of their own. Running a marathon, learning a new language, reading the bible, climbing all the 4000 footers in NH, and for an old guy, in Newburyport MA turning 50, the challenge was to run under 5 minutes for the mile on his birthday.
The training went well. A quote I heard recently resonates with all that went along with this yearly ritual. “What you do when the stadium is full is incredibly important. What you do when the stadium is empty is 10000 times more important.” Ironically for me the stadium would be empty during the training and final event itself, save for one person that I had not yet met.
September 13th 2017. Anxiety. Could I do it? One more time. I had a small window of time to get down to the track. A busy work day forced me to delay getting down to the track at around 2 PM. Entering the oval I saw that I would have to share the track with someone that was doing a workout. Not ideal.
This was a private ceremony. The extremely fit young man, who could have easily been my son, jogged over. “Wow, you’re wearing spikes? Doing a workout?”
I explained to Ben, a recently graduated D1 400 & 800 meter track athlete, the long story of how I arrived on this track on this day. He asked if he could help pace me. “What about my ground rules?” Sub 5 on my birthday by MYSELF. I had contemplated asking the top miler at our local high school to pace me but as the date approached I dismissed the notion of getting help.
I learned an immediate lesson, right there on that track. Sometimes you do need help. Often that help is not asked for but delivered to you. On this day, knowing the moment, and the importance of this particular mile I accepted. No Ben wasn’t just there to do a workout on this Wednesday, a week before beginning his new career in Washington DC. He was there to help a stranger achieve something special.
“On your mark, get set, go.” 1:10 Too fast. 2:25 I am slowing down. 3:45 Can I hang on? Ben peals to the left. “Go go go” he screams. Dig. Dig deeper. 200 meters to go. Legs and lungs are burning. I hear the screaming. About 100 meters to go, around 4:40…. Give IT everything.
“You did it!” 4:58.37.