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When Last Place Is Better Than First

Posted Oct 20 2011 9:27pm
The other day, Steve, a member of my beginning running group at the Volvo North America Headquarters told me that he was learning to “celebrate the small gains.” He just discovered during  our post-run stretching that he could balance on his right ankle. Something he’s never been able to do. He also shared that he's had fewer calf cramps and has improved his breathing. Steve's excitement over seeing his running pay off in other areas of his everyday life was pretty cool. Earlier the same day, another client at Volvo (Debra, in her 50s)  who is in the Fitness Walking group shared a similar experience. While at a recent weekend beach excursion, she was able to pull the family's wagon full of beach “stuff” up the dune to her car to the amazement of her husband. Keep in mind that not too long ago Debra had a hip replacement.

What many don’t understand is that Steve's and Debra's experiences are what fitness is all about…celebrating the small gains. Before you know it those small gains add up to huge life-changing gains.  Getting up off the couch and taking that first walk really can lead eventually to completing a marathon. It all starts with that first step. 

New York City Marathon co-founder Fred Lebow once said, "In running, it doesn't matter whether you come in first, in the middle of the pack, or last. You can say, 'I have finished.' There is a lot of satisfaction in that." That was definitely the case this past weekend for myself and a client of mine, Rhonda. We ran the Triple Lakes Trail Half Marathon in Greensboro, NC and came in last place.

Distraught? Let down? Disappointed? Hell no! I’ve run a lot of half and full marathons over the past 25 years. My half-marathon PR is 1:30 (not too shabby). But the Triple Lakes Half Marathon at a finish time of 3:58:59 will stand out as one of the most inspirational and moving races I’ve ever run. 

Rhonda and her husband Row came to me several months ago. Rhonda was on a mission. She was turning 50 and wanted to run a half marathon to celebrate this milestone. Row was along for the ride to support, Rhonda.  Many 50-year-olds run half-marathons, but what set Rhonda apart was that she was not a runner and had over the years endured 7 knee surgeries. Rhonda has a passion for tennis and has played most of her life. It has taken a toll on the knees.  I could see she was determined and after passing her fitness assessment, we set to work on achieving her half-marathon goal.

The first session we had, I took Rhonda and Row out for a run/walk. I noticed that Rhonda was heel-striking and knew this would more than likely aggravate her knees. So, I showed her how to land with more of a mid-foot foot strike underneath her body. She took too it immediately and said after that very first session, “That’s the first time, I’ve run without pain.” That one small change made all the difference in the world.

Rhonda and Row continued the run/walk workouts on their own, hitting the trails most weekends. They also continued their training sessions with me coming every Sunday afternoon for a 1-hour workout. We worked on building upper-body, core and lower-body muscular endurance. While Row (in his mid 50s) was initially along for the ride to support Rhonda, he discovered he enjoyed the workouts as much as Rhonda.  I’m not sure who was inspired the most, Rhonda and Row doing the workouts and getting stronger every week, or me watching them get stronger each week.

Rhonda watched how Row had taken to the workouts and was really improving as a runner and she wanted him to run the half-marathon at his own pace and do well. She also knew he wouldn’t leave her alone to run the race on her own. I realized this too and offered to run the race with Rhonda. One of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

I met Rhonda and Row early on race day and the journey began. It was a chilly morning. Both Rhonda and Row were over dressed and each had a Camelback hydration unit strapped to their backs. Looking around they laughed realizing they were overdressed and were probably over “watered” too for a half. I told them they had on layers they could remove as they heated up and better safe than sorry with the water. 

It wasn’t long after the starter gun sounded that Rhonda and I were in last place. We held on to that title till the very end. Rhonda’s goal from the very beginning was to finish. Time didn't matter. All she wanted to be able to say after finishing was, “I gave it my all, I finished, and I finished strong.” And that she did.

We kept up a 4-minute run 2-minute walk for a good portion of the race. The course was tough, covering four different trails. The last segment was on the Owls Roost Trail which is quite hilly and has several technical sections. The challenging terrain began to tug at Rhonda’s knee, so we walked a good portion of this final trail and enjoyed the beautiful morning, deep in the woods, winding around gorgeous Lake Brandt.

Rhonda said that at each milestone birthday she’s done something adventurous.  At 25 she went sky diving. At 30 she went to Greece. At 40, she and some girlfriends went to Vegas (I’m sure it’s never quite been the same) and at 50 she ran this half-marathon. She’s already contemplating what to do for the big 60.
Towards the end of our half-marathon journey, the full-marathon runners began to pass us. First just one, then two, then the first female marathoner.  Each time, Rhonda gave a shout out, “Looking strong” “Keep it up” “You’re amazing!” All I could think was, “No, Rhonda. You’re amazing.”

We crossed that finish line almost 4 hours after starting and I’ve never had a smile so big on my face as I did throwing my arms up with Rhonda’s in victory as we crossed that finish line.
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