Gather Strength as You Go Along
It wasn’t until 3 AM when we staggered out of Golden Gate Park and onto the Presidio. We’d covered twenty miles, but it was difficult to see that as a great achievement when the mist was blowing out from the Pacific into our faces in the chilly pre-dawn and we still had over thirty miles to go. I was running with two Green Bay based members of My Team Triumph, a non-profit dedicated to exposing the disabled to athletic events. We pushed a empty running stroller to signify those who couldn’t make it that day. As part of the SF Marathon’s charity outreach, we hoped to use our 9 hour, 52.4 mile run to raise awareness for the great things My Team Triumph was doing and that the boundaries of what we view as possible are further than we believe.
The 52.4 ultra-marathon runs the SF Marathon course twice. The first half starts at midnight. Runners complete the course backwards. After reaching the Embarcadero, participant run the second marathon with everyone else. As we came down the hill from the Golden Gate Bridge onto Crissy Field, I saw two pairs of dim headlights in the distance. In front of them, thirty young women, all dressed in blue and jogging in two ragged, yet persistent lines. Some had pictures on their backs, others carried flags. This was Team Wear Blue, Run to Remember, a running community built to honor the sacrifices made by the military. Nearly all of these women had lost someone close to them in combat, many were combat veterans themselves. Faced with an emotional burden which seemed unbearable, they’d taken it upon themselves to meet a physical challenge which also seemed impossible; they would run fifty miles that morning between several military resting places in San Francisco.
We broke from the women and arrived at the start of the marathon as the sun was starting to break over the horizon. On our own crooked legs we crawled back over the morning smells of Fisherman’s Wharf and through the Marina. Running over the Golden Gate Bridge, I saw a pack of runners with their heads up and shoulders back, all wearing bright red shirts with white eagles. This was Team RWB, a group which helps vets transition back into civilian life by replicating a physical environment filled with camaraderie. I spotted a few friends of mine on the time and went for high fives which felt like I was high fiving a brick wall and almost sent me stumbling back into the runners behind me.
The rest of my double marathon was a blur. Completely by chance we found a world renowned ultrarunner who’d run down onto the course from Marin and was just socializing and logging some miles. I can’t tell you very much about the bands in Golden Gate Park or the cheerleaders waving banners in the Haight and asking me why the good ones always ran away. I do know that I’d started running with about six people in the morning and I’d finish with thousands.
When I sat down for my first course in military history, an instructor told me that militaries are reflections of the societies they defend. Since that course, I’ve run marathons in the west, south, and east of the US as well as in two other countries. What other days do we get out of our homes and run together? What makes a community and what helps us feel like we belong to one? How many opportunities do we have in our lives to not only try and break one of our own limits and socialize that we are? That we have a chance to raise money and awareness for causes we care about?
I left the military to come to San Francisco not knowing what I’d find. I think what made it a home for me were the passionate people I met and their willingness to fight for the causes they believed in. Where else could I meet some vikings from Wisconsin and run through the night with them? Where else can Team RWB make a partnership and get vets back onto their feet and eating up miles? Where else do ghostly figures in blue come out of the night and struggle together pacing into the dawn? In these things, the ancient motto of the ultrarunner: Vires Acquirit Eundo- It Gathers Strength as it Goes Along.