As I run in a marathon,
A man dressed as Mighty Mouse passes me.
I vow to remember
There is no situation too serious,
There is always someone faster.
It was seventeen years after my first marathon before I wanted to run another.
My first marathon experience had not been the exhilarating, life-changing experience that it seems to be for many people. Instead, it had been an exercise in exhaustion and frustration – not understanding how to train properly, combined with my own anxiety as race day approached, led to an experience I had not been eager to repeat.
Seventeen years later, I finally decided to run another marathon, and treat it with seriousness and careful planning. I would train for this one correctly and meticulously, closely following a workout schedule developed and certified by recognized experts. I wanted to be certain of what I was doing with every step, understand why I was doing it, and know exactly what was going to happen next.
In each and every way I felt I had failed in running my first marathon, I was grimly determined to even the score. I am a hopelessly obstinate person: a nagging settler of scores hell-bent on always getting in the last word, the scion of a quietly stubborn line of woodworking Arkansans and Tennesseans, no-nonsense casket makers and buriers of the dead – one of my undertaker ancestors patented the mechanical contraption used to lower coffins into the ground. “Your daddy’s family have the hardest heads,” my mother would sigh, usually with a smile.
As I started planning, I realized this had always been something I was going to do, sooner or later — part act of contrition, part wreaking of vengeance. It was deeply, furiously personal. I went about my business with deadly earnestness. I learned all I could about the latest workouts, nutrition supplements, and high-tech charms claimed to boost endurance levels and increase speed. After careful research, I found a training plan that seemed to fit, marked the exact date on the calendar to start training, and my quest for a second marathon began.
That second marathon began exactly as planned. My pace was precisely measured with the aid of a digital watch, on which I kept a wary eye. The proper levels of fluids and energy gels were being ingested at the recommended times. I even started passing a few people, smugly thinking they hadn’t practiced as hard as me, weren’t as good as me. This is going well, I thought, my eyes narrowing and smile tightening in stern triumph.
I glanced to the right of me, startled. What appeared to be a more fluorescent, edgier version of the vintage cartoon character Mighty Mouse — complete with a homemade paper-mache´ mouse head — was gliding by me effortlessly, cape flapping behind him as his friend followed close by.
I was mortified. Passed by someone dressed up like a cartoon character! How could someone treat a marathon as their personal stage to act like a fool? And how could they run so fast? I struggled to catch him; he had to be caught.
No giant mouse was going to beat me.
My breath came faster, my stride quicker, but I was surprised to hear the runners around me laughing. They thought this was funny? “Mighty Mouse!” people cried, and the man in the mouse suit, along with his friend, shook their heads. “No, no! Super Raton! Super Raton!” they shouted in sharply accented Spanglish as they pulled away, leaving the crowd’s laughter and me in their wake.
As I desperately tried to catch Super Raton, other people merely laughing as he passed them by, I realized I wasn’t going to catch him and that he wasn’t going to slow down. He was running a marathon dressed in a homemade Halloween costume. He was faster than me, than many of us. And he was having fun, and everyone but me seemed to think it was funny.
Watching that lumpy mouse head bob away into the distance, I finally slowed down, admitted to someone running next to me that it was funny, and found it in me to laugh. It was a good thing I slowed down, because trying to catch Super Raton could have ruined my pacing and my carefully planned race.
I finished that marathon with a smile on my face.
We should feel free to honor the competitor within us, that spirit that makes us want to be better. Fed modestly and watched closely, that fiery spirit can be helpful and even bring us joy. But it’s also one of the toughest spirits to control. Not watched carefully, it can easily control us instead – leading to endless cycles of anger, frustration, and an inability to see the humor in our inevitable personal pratfalls.
There are literally billions of people on this planet, and there is always someone faster than you, more attractive than you or quicker with a comeback, someone who sits more quietly on the last day of that week-long meditation retreat, someone who always seems to get that promotion you’ve been waiting for or aces that marathon finish time you’ve killed yourself in training to reach, but can’t. And there’s someone faster than them, too. And the fastest person of all gets injured, or is having problems in a relationship, or can’t ever remember where he or she left the car keys. As the Buddha realized when he first ventured beyond the ivory walls of his family palace, even the fastest or most handsome of us are facing the fundamental challenges of age and disease, life and death, and none of us are getting out of here alive. Could we perhaps all get along a little better if we kept those things in mind?
Often – especially when we allow our competitive fires to blaze out of control – our challenges aren’t nearly as serious as our egos would like us to think they are. In fact, our most serious challenge by far is probably that lifelong marathon we’re running against our egos. And here’s a surefire way to take at least a brief lead in that ongoing contest: when you’re being beaten in a race of any sort by a cartoon character, throw your head back and laugh out loud.