It’s not every day that I have the opportunity to hear a legendary athlete speak in person. Nor is it exactly normal to realize that I have things in common with that athlete. Yet when I heard you speak this past Saturday at an expo in St. Petersburg, I realized that was exactly the case.
Sure, I will never be an Olympic athlete, let alone a gold medalist, let alone a gold medalist in an event that has been dominated by East Africans, yet I understood exactly what you meant when you said that you run because you love it. I also love to run, and I am not alone in this. I would wager that fully three-quarters of the audience was right there with you and Steve Jones and John Bingham, when all three of you talked about how you ran simply because you loved it.
But as you spoke I realized that I knew something more about you, something more personal, something else that we had in common. I didn’t say anything to you, because I am shy and easily flustered, but I really wanted to.
Instead, I went home and looked up the article I was thinking of. It ran in “Runners World” last year, written by the brilliant John Brant, and I sat down with my laptop and I read the entire article, from start to finish, even though it hurt my heart to do so. I then read through dozens of comments and letters sent in response to your brave story.
I knew then that my hunch was right, that we do in fact have more in common than simply our love of running. We both know what it’s like to be abused by someone we are supposed to love.
I won’t pretend like what I went through is anything like what you and your family suffered. What you lived through is a horror show – no doubt about it. Yet I have to say that many things rang familiar to me – the unwavering vigilance for signs of the impending eruption, memories that should be beautiful but are instead marked by pain and fear, being at the mercy of someone who doesn’t hesitate to attack your vulnerabilities, the sense that you can never truly be safe in your own home.
And when you said that you found peace through running, I understood that, too. Finally, we had something we were good at! Something that could not be taken away from us! Something that gave us strength and courage! When we run, the tormentors in our heads give us peace. As you said about winning that gold medal in Munich in 1972, running was your “utmost something that maybe he couldn’t touch and couldn’t beat out of me.”
As I read more of your story, I realized something about myself, that maybe the reason I have taken so well to running is because I have, in the words of Mr. Brant, learned to “ride the pain.” When you have become accustomed to unpredictable pain inflicted by others, well, the finite, self-inflicted pain of distance running seems manageable. I know the pain is confined to the space between the starting line and the finish line, and that I can withstand it. What makes it even better is that when I finish, I feel alive and in touch with that most elemental part of myself, not awash in shame and confusion and fear.
While your athletic achievements are definitely a very admirable part of who you are – and by the way, your idea of “running to find out” was nothing short of a revelation for both myself and my husband – what I find most inspiring is your desire to tell your story in hopes of helping others. I recently realized that I have a similar sense of what I like to call “radical honesty,” where I feel okay talking about my experiences if I know it’s going to help another person not feel so alone, or to maybe understand what others are going through.
I have often thought that if more of us could be open about the challenges and problems we’ve faced in our lives, it would help us to feel a little less alienated from one another. After all, I imagine that the teenagers you’ve spoken to, the ones who said you were telling their stories, felt a little better, a little stronger when they knew that you, a person who once achieved something most of us could only dream of, had gone through similar hell and yet had found a way to prevail.
And prevail you did. You didn’t let what your father did to you grind you into dust. You didn’t become bitter and angry at the world. You instead chose to protect your children. You chose to speak out. You chose to try to help others. You chose to be the kind of person who talks to high school cross country runners for several minutes at inaugural race expos (and yes, I thought that was very cool of you).
So I wanted to thank you. I sat down to hear you speak, thinking I was going to get a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear Frank Shorter, Olympic Gold Medalist, speak. Instead I came away with more self-awareness, more respect and a greater desire to do good in my own life. That’s worth more than every story about distance running in the whole world combined.