My first race was a joyous dash across a pockmarked, red clay elementary school playground, from which I was picked for our school relay team. From that relay race sprang three and a half decades of running and racing, culminating in a 100-mile trail race just a few hours from the spot where I had leaned forward, tense and quivering, at that raggedly drawn playground starting line. In January of this year I retired from racing after 35 years. I always wanted to walk away from racing rather than limp away, and it just felt like the right time.
Over the years, I participated in more marathons than I can easily remember, but I never went to Boston. I knew a qualifying time for Boston was pretty much beyond my meager talents, and I never seriously made an attempt to do so. But for the past few decades I have watched in excitement and no little envy as other, faster friends qualified and stood at that famous starting line in Hopkinton. Several of them were running yesterday. All of them are, thankfully, safe. Tragically, many others were not.
Throughout my racing life, I had a somewhat uneasy relationship with the sport. I was competitive, and I still feel it can be helpful to honor the competitor in each of us. Training for races can certainly push us to be the fastest runner we can be, to perform to the very limit of our abilities and beyond. But the darker side of racing is that we can let it define us, view our running only as a string of daily successes or failures based solely on a digital readout.
I came to think of racing as a good life practice simply because it made me more aware of the benefits and pitfalls of my competitive side, which in turn helped me focus more on appreciating the pure act of running. That deeper Tao, where we literally become our legs moving freely over the surface of the earth, the wind whistling in our ears, our breath and heart pounding as one, cannot be exploded from under our feet. It is ours. It is us.
I was reminded yesterday of one of my favorite Zen koans, from the Blue Cliff Record:
Yun Men said, “I don’t ask you about the 15th day, try to say something about after the 15th day.”
Yun Men himself answered for everyone, “Every day is a good day.”
I am grateful for the Boston Marathon, for the spirit of competition, but most of all for the simple ability of running to continually return me to myself. My prayer is that each runner put aside the stopwatch for at least one day and take to the streets or trails for a run of pure gratitude, thankful for the legs that still move underneath them, the heart that still beats within, the breath that pushes all of us forward into the terrible, wonderful unknown, where every day is a good day.