It’s the end of the day on the twenty-first, and despite what the Mayans may or may not have said, either we’re still here or at least our perception of reality is; apparently the Matrix has not yet been breached. I recognize that where the Mayans lived is a time zone or two away from here, so there’s still time for the big finale, but I’m betting that life will go on, at least for most of us.
On a day that began with the solstice and the various pagan rituals of the renewal of life and the coming of longer days that you may or may not have partaken in, and ended with our apparent survival, life is a good topic to ponder. It’s fragile. We know that, yet we skirt its boundaries almost daily without thinking about it, or at least we don’t like to. When those boundaries are crossed, we are shocked, grieved, thrown out of our comfort zone, and left to ponder something that shouldn’t be a surprise, since it is with us all the time. We will all lose this game in the long run (no pun intended), so the best we can hope for is to make the most of it while we can. Ride the gravy train of life experiences. Or, in economic terms, maximize the utility of what we’ve got while we’ve got it.
This column was forming in my head well before our nation entered its state of profound grief over the senseless tragedy in Connecticut last week. It was forming since about a quarter to eleven on the night following Cross Country Nationals in Lexington, Kentucky, when I became witness to the aftermath of a different tragedy, the loss of Lauren Roady, in what can only be described as an ironic, yet certainly horrible accident. One soul in Kentucky, compared to twenty-six in Connecticut, yet the holes in the fabric of those who knew her (I did not) loom just as large, holes the size of someone lost well before their due.
Celebration follows Nationals. I learned that last year in Seattle, not that it was a surprise. It’s an appropriate thing to do. The pressure to perform at your “National Best” has just been relieved hours earlier. You can you look forward to a break in training intensity for a while. Most important, though, is the simple fact that you can celebrate that one way or another: you made it to Nationals, you competed with the best, even if you couldn’t hold a candle to them, and you were a part of an event that is in effect a celebration of our sport itself. You’ve maximized a bit of your life. It’s a high. Ride it.
This year’s celebration didn’t roll off as coordinated as last year’s. The organized gala somehow didn’t materialize, so teams made for alternate celebratory venues. Having found myself in a pub of hopelessly happy harriers, I was unfortunately quickly reminded of a physical weakness in my being, that being my utter inability to discern voices above a din. Unable to communicate meaningfully, I elected to make it an early night, and headed back to the hotel with my teammate roommate. Thus it was that we were already in, when many would revel late into the night.
I mentioned last week my appreciation of irony. I’d just commented to my roommate on the unusually high volume of sirens outside our eighth floor room, something not unique to this night as I’d noticed it the previous evening as well. Must be a rough town, I remarked lightheartedly. Thus the irony when he happened to glance out the window and realized that this time, the sirens had converged on the street below our window. “You’d better come over here and look at this,” he beckoned.
What we saw sank our hearts. A street full of first responders. A victim, respectfully covered in the standard-issue white sheet. This wasn’t CSI, this was life. We amateur sleuthed from eight stories up and observed the team below investigating a parked, darkened fire truck, and had already deduced the likely scenario of a pedestrian having been hit by the fire truck before it was confirmed on the local news. Knowing it was a tragedy no matter who it was, we still prayed it wasn’t one of our extended running family. It wasn’t until morning that I learned the sad truth, that not only was it one of our family, but a young member of our family, whom I’d later learned had been married only two months prior. My thoughts went back to my uncle losing his first wife to a traffic accident only a month into his newly married life. I was too young then to understand the horror of such an event. Now, with nearly twenty years of a wonderful marriage and all the blessings it has brought to me written in my book of experience, the tragedy below took on a an even heavier dimension. It was hard to fathom being denied so suddenly, so soon.
As our nation grapples with how to respond to the very public tragedy in Connecticut, likewise our running community grappled with how to respond to this very specific tragedy in Kentucky. Just as with the aftermath of Sandy Hook, emotions ran high, sometimes edging into unexpected directions. Message boards lit up in the days that followed, mostly with grief, but with a few insensitive comments trying to lay blame on both the victim and the firemen, who when you think of it, were also victims of that tragedy. Both sides suffered the worst day of their lives; Lauren and her family for the obvious reason, and the fireman at the wheel, a person committed to saving lives, having taken one, and in the process also having taken on immeasurable grief.
While speaking of blame seemed inappropriate, the reality of the event forces us to examine the actions we take and the potential outcomes. Crossing a street on a rainy night and getting hit by a fire truck is fatal. But we can’t stop the rain, and we can’t avoid crossing streets, nor can we stop allowing fire trucks to traverse our streets. Nor is it appropriate to never travel to a race again, nor to never race, or for that matter, even run again. There are a million things that can bring about our demise. Whether you are spiritual or not, there is no denying that life is a miracle that it exists at all. And it is fragile, so easy to turn off. But we can’t stop living simply because we will at some point stop living. We can learn, but we can’t allow ourselves to lose our propensity to action.
A few days ago I headed out for a far-off business meeting. I know that each time I get in the car to travel to some distant customer could be my last. Mother Nature certainly didn’t make this trip easy, with several stretches of heavy weather providing more than a few White Knuckle Moments. But my end could just as easily happen on dry pavement down the street from home. Or who even needs a car? Several years back I managed to inflict a body-full of fabulously colored contusions (ooh, they’re at their best a month later!) right on my unexpectedly icy front porch, or should I say on each of the stairs leading off it, bouncing off every one, sailing wildly out of control halfway down to the street. Risk and danger are everywhere. We work to minimize them. But we can’t hide from life because of them, or let them get in the way of our efforts to get the most out of the life we have. We’ve got nothing but time, and less of it every day.
One of the things I appreciate about the running community is that it is filled with people who have, through their actions, made a public pledge to get off the couch, fight through adversity, better themselves, and get the most from what they have. While I am one of them and hope that my actions preach this message, I still thrive on the inspiration of other runners to drive myself. It’s a self-energizing loop when we band together to coax each other on. It starts locally, it builds regionally, and it celebrates nationally. We went to Lexington to celebrate what humans can do when inspired to make good use of the time we’re granted.
When a tragedy struck such as did that night, we mourn, and we try to learn both individually and as a society how to avoid a repeat performance, but in the end we carry on. In doing so we honor those lost, who would have wanted us to carry on, and would have been there to cheer us forward. We walk away, or in our case, run away, reminded at how fragile life truly is, and how important it is to celebrate and maximize the life we’ve got.