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Thursday, May 31, 2012

A true runner of steel




I'm sitting in my hotel room, two and a half hours before the start of the Pittsburgh Marathon but my mind is still busy processing the events of my last marathon.  Big Sur was by far 26.2 of the most challenging miles I have traversed, but also the most beautiful.  The pictures you see, and the stories you hear pale in comparison to the actual beauty you experience when you are standing on the edge of the world.  With those thoughts still fresh in my mind, I couldn't help but wonder what Pittsburgh would bring.  The bragging right of this race- upon finishing I can proudly proclaim that I am a "Runner of Steel" and that I have conquered the "City of Bridges".  This would also be the final event in my challenge of running 3 marathons in 20 days.  I set out to find the race start with a smile on my face. Enjoying the ride was my goal.


The sun was shining and the race was off without a hitch.  I found myself admiring the neighborhood restaurants and hangouts and cheering for the crowd support. Yes, they need support too! The miles were moving pretty quickly which I was quite happy about. Not because I wanted the race to end, simply because you can never be sure how your body will feel 7 days after 26.2 miles of wind and hills. We hit the first bridge and I was happily surprised to find that it was relatively flat.  Pre-race talk of bridges immediately brought me back to the Running for the Bay Marathon in Apalachiacola, Florida. Miles and miles of bridges- over the bay- high enough for large boats to maneuver under (read: steep grade). To say I was relieved to cross a bridge that was relatively flat would be a major understatement. Another highlight of the bridges- this is where I first spotted someone dressed as Steve Prefontaine.  Shaggy blonde hair, mustache, tiny running shorts and 1970's striped socks.  Perfect! 

The relief that I felt having crossed five flat bridges faded quickly as we began to climb Forbes Ave. From there on out it was all rolling hills just in different neighborhoods. The temperature was rising.  Thankfully the neighborhood trees provided ample shade over the course. I was using my experience from Boston regarding my hydration- some in the mouth and some on the head. A delicate balance. It seemed to be working. The last three or four tenths of a mile was an up hill climb on a freshly paved road. Ugly. Hot. But I was still smiling. Three marathons in 20 days. Done. I was officially a Runner of Steel!!

 The next morning I gathered my things, stepped out of the hotel and hailed a cab. Time to head home. Small talk in the cab is something I am used to.  Conversation with the driver, a middle aged man speaking in a distinct accent, was no exception.   It started out innocently enough as he asked if I had been in town for the race. I confirmed his suspicions and he began to tell me that he had run a few back in the day.  I didn't think too much of it as he moved on to asking me about all of the ins and outs of how the timing chips and corrals worked. The races he had run had nothing like this. Very interesting I thought. Before I knew it he was telling me that he was forced to run marathons. 
"Really?" I asked.
"Yes" he confirmed.
The distinct accent I was hearing was one of a man from Iraq. He had lived there most of his life. His marathon experience was one of celebration- only not HIS celebration.
Every year a marathon was run on Saddam Hussein's birthday, in his honor.  Athletes were collected from every area with a sports program.  Basketball, boxing, soccer, it didn't matter. A minimum of twenty athletes form each area were collected and forced to run in the celebratory marathon.

I was in shock. It is challenging enough to run a marathon when you train for it, when you want to run it.  I could not imagine being an athlete whose sport requires maximum 20-30 seconds of effort before a rest and then being forced to run 26.2 miles! That is a TRUE runner of steel.

He went on to tell me that growing up in Iraq great athletes were not allowed to play for successful teams in other countries, as is quite common for athletes in other parts of the world.  They were forced to play for their own country. They were threatened before hand that if they did not win, they would be severely punished and thrown in jail for an undetermined amount of time.  I recalled reading stories of the Iraqi soccer team and cruel punishment, but to hear it from someone who lived it was a completely different experience.  

The drama and sadness of our conversation then turned to an update of the sports teams of today.  He told me that since the war, things were getting much better. Athletes were more successful and were allowed to take their talents to the teams of their choice. Freedom meant so much more than just life without a dictator. It meant having the ability to enjoy every aspect of life whenever and wherever. As an Iraqi he was thankful for the war and for the new life it brought to his country.

I was so elated to hear the positive impact of the efforts of the United States and our military forces. Their efforts not only freed a country from a horrible dictator, but also revived the county's pastimes.  People were allowed to take part in sports that they chose and were no longer forced to run marathons to entertain others.  

I am thankful to live in a country where I know people will not only fight to maintain the freedom I have to choose to run marathons or not but also fight for those same freedoms for others.  

Happy Memorial Day and thank you Pittsburgh for this amazing experience!

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