Alex Karas was a professional football player when I was a kid. He was a huge guy, built in the mold of the old school NFL… what he lacked in class he made up for in lack of style. But he knew it, and made no apologies for it. I remember hearing the story of him dancing with a rather large lady at a party. His mother taught him to always say something nice to the girls he danced with. So he payed her the only compliment he could think of… “You don’t sweat much for a fat lady.” Something tells me he didn’t get a second dance.
My public gaffes happened two years ago, and again yesterday. They weren’t quite as bad as Alex Karas’, and I didn’t even realize how dumb they were until last night. I’m pretty sure that those on the receiving end have long forgotten, but I still feel like I owe them a public apology.
Two years ago, I ran the third leg of the relay in the Little Rock Marathon. The third leg started in front of the State Capitol. After a quick turn to the west, the route immediately started a four mile climb. Yes, four miles. Sure, there were a couple of short flat spots; maybe even a slight decline for a hundred feet or so. But then, right back up. I don’t quite remember how I drew that straw, but I did. I knew it was a long climb, so I intentionally did a lot of hill training to prepare.
On race morning, I walked from the race start point to the relay changeover point… only about 3/4 of a mile. It was actually a pretty good warmup. My relay partner showed up on time, we swapped the timing bracelet, and off I went. I turned the corner, and started the climb. I was completely fresh, thinking clearly, and well-prepared. I shortened my stride just a little and settled into a nice pace.
Gradually, I began to pass a number of other runners. They looked awful. Gasping, grunting, hurting… man, hadn’t they studied the course? What did they expect? It was a four mile climb. I know, I’ll ENCOURAGE them. As I passed each one, I gave out a hearty, “Great job!” “You’re looking great!” Funny, they didn’t seem as encouraged as I thought they should. In fact, they looked a little torqued off. Oh, well, their problem if they can’t handle the climb.
Fast forward two years. I’m now in the middle of the 4 mile climb, after 13 miles of continually rolling hills. And I’m starting to hurt. I did everything as I planned… I’ve even run this part of the course before. But it is a slog… and I know there’s still 9 miles to go after the TOP of the hill. Gradually, more and more runners are passing me. And every now and then, I hear a cheery, “You’re doing great!” “Keep up the great work!” And all I can think is… well, I can’t print that here.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of encouragement. In fact, one of the best things about yesterday’s marathon was the crowds along the route cheering, clapping, and offering the occasional, “Way to go, Steve” (the racing numbers had our names printed on them). But there was something grating about the guy passing me tossing back the “sympathy” encouragement. In my head, what I heard was “You’re doing great… but I’m doing greater, because I’m passing you.” And to make matters worse, the relay was cancelled this year, so the runners passing me had already run the same course I had.
So, in 20/20 hindsight, I offer two public apologies. First, to those marathoners from 2010 who were on the receiving end of a prideful “Keep up the good work” from someone who hadn’t yet run 13 plus miles in their shoes. You were doing great… you were awesome… but I hadn’t really earned the right to tell you that from my two mile legs. And second, to all of those runners yesterday who, despite their own struggle up the four mile hill after 13 miles of running, cared enough to offer encouragement, but got only a grunt (or silence) in return. Don’t let my lack of appreciation in the moment ever discourage you from doing it in the future.
But maybe with a little less cheer next time?