The evening after the Dallas Marathon, in which I ran the half portion and my son Charlie the first leg of the relay, we signed up for another 13.1-mile race. We had each had a wonderful race and a wonderful day, and wanted to prolong that feeling of euphoria.
We chose the 3M Half Marathon in Austin, which took place on January 21. Turns out I had to defer my registration because of nagging behind-the-knee issues, but was so excited to be there and to cheer Charlie on. I was tracking him as he ran, so every five kilometers, my phone would beep with an update. The first notice was of his 8:22 per mile pace, which was faster than he’d anticipated.
“C’mon, Charlie!” I whispered as I did my own walk through downtown. “Keep it up!”
He’d slowed down by about 20 seconds by the time he crossed the 10K marker; at 15K he was even slower. i really wasn’t all that concerned; he hadn’t put in all that many miles, but he was confident so what else could I be, too? Besides, his predicted finish time was just at two hours, which I figured would make him feel somewhere between disappointed and comfortable.
When the estimated finish-line crossing time appeared — 9:35 a.m. — I scooted over to the State Capitol to wait for him. That time passed, then 9:40 and 9:45. Finally, I saw him. I waved madly and called out his name. He hobbled over to the wooden barrier separating runners from spectators.
“My foot is killing me,” he said. “I almost didn’t make it the last three miles, but I knew I’d be so mad at myself if I didn’t finish.”
He couldn’t even hobble to the medical tent, which was maybe 30 feet away. So I found him a wheelchair and a volunteer, who pushed him in so he could get treatment. I wasn’t allowed in, but he texted me a few times with updates. They were icing it, he told me in one; waiting for the doctor, he said in another.
After about an hour, the doctor came out to say he probably pulled a muscle in his foot, and he needed to stay off it. Not that he had a choice; he was in awful pain. A few hours later, when we were finally home, he elaborated on what had happened when he was in the tent being treated.
“I’m sitting there with my foot wrapped in ice,” he said, “and a woman comes in with really bad cramps in her leg.” She climbed onto the table right next to where Charlie was sitting. When the medical technician started to massage her legs, “you could tell she was in agony,” Charlie said.
“I asked her, ‘Do you want to squeeze my hand?'” She nodded gratefully, tightly grasping his outstretched hand until her pain eased a bit.
After a few minutes, Charlie’s foot pain suddenly reached a wave of almost unbearable intensity.
“It hurt so badly I thought I was going to cry,” he told me. (This, let me add, from someone whom I’ve seen cry maybe twice since he was about five years old.)
“Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw her holding out her hand and I squeezed it,” he said.
When Charlie left the medical tent, he was able to manage a smile as he held high the medal he’d fought for more than three miles to earn. By the next afternoon, his pain was minimal. Now, a week later, Charlie has a hard time even imagining the intensity. But he does remember the warmth of empathetic fingers and of an empathetic heart.
So for stubbornness, for smiles, for the squeeze of a stranger’s hand…The Grateful Runner says thank you.