I found myself running again on Tuesday evening, right as the sun was setting. It was a nice afternoon, with a nice temperature and slight breeze. It wasn’t exactly warm, but it wasn’t cold either. I drove down to the local high school’s track, parked Jeepster, and I began to run. There were only two women on the track, both walking. I just jogged along, just my thoughts and me. Of course, whenever I came up on one of the walkers, I increased my pace ever so slightly in order to pass them.
Most of the heroic people I’ve seen or heard about have done their heroic deeds in the presence of others. And crowds of cheerful followers pushing them on with applause and vocal support have inspired most of the great athletes. I can understand why someone would leave it all on the field if thousands were willing them to do so. It’s not hard at all to excel and step up your game when someone important is watching. As I ran by mile 7 at the Philadelphia Half Marathon last autumn, I stepped up my pace because I knew The Girl was going to be there to take a picture of me.
When the two women were done with their walking, they gathered their water bottles and sweaters and left. I was alone on the track then. The sun kept setting, and only the hurried singing of birds in the distance marked any kind of pace for me. But I was tired. Two weeks earlier I had burned a lot of skin off my leg by slide tackling on artificial turf during a soccer game. That pretty much stopped me in my tracks. Getting back into running is ten times harder when you lose that much time to injury… Or to other things. My calves ached, my knees hurt, and I was out of breath as I kept pushing myself on. I wanted to do 3 miles, but the first mile was tough enough.
If I stop now, no one will know, I thought to myself.
There is a unique characteristic of “bad guys” in cartoons and literature whereby they look both ways and behind them before they do their evil deed. They have those “sneaky eyes” right before they steal the crown jewels, or take someone’s wallet. There was a kid in high school that cheated on most of his exams. He always raised his head to look and see where the teacher was before he looked over someone else’s shoulder. That was his “tell” that he was going to do something bad. We all have a “tell”, just not that obvious. So I looked all around to see if anyone would see me stop after only a mile and a quarter.
“It is said that the true definition of a hero…”
I kept running. For a moment, or two, I thought about how big of a failure I had to be if I was going to cheat myself out of a good run. I looked all around. It was a beautiful evening, I had two legs, and I am overweight enough that a good run wouldn’t kill me. So I pressed on to finish my three miles. There was no fanfare. No one stood up and applauded my decision to keep going despite the physical and mental obstacles. And there certainly would not be a medal at the end.
“…can be seen when a man lays down his life with the knowledge that those he saves will never know.” – Anonymous
Later that evening I thought about all the things that I had done in my life knowing that someone was watching me. I thought about trying to impress girls, please my parents, or be a role model for my siblings. I thought about my mentors being pleased when I got an “A” on an exam, all the while not being really satisfied with one “A” or even liking the class. How much of my life have I lived in the limelight of others? How much have I lived for myself?
At the very least, the run was for me… The races I run are for me… Even with a hundred other runners and The Girl cheering for me, I’d like to think that I can run just as good alone as I do with those incentives. I want to think of myself as someone that would do stuff even when no one is looking. Doing otherwise would be an empty life, really… It’s so easy to be everybody’s hero. The hard part is being my own.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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