Tim Byers is a very nice young man. He's from Kansas, but he sounds like a Southerner. He has an endearing humility, a habit of ending sentences with a trailing "... and everything like that" and a nice smile.
He is head fitness specialist at the North Dakota State University Wellness Center. In that capacity, he wrote a small article for the center's January newsletter, beginning with deceptively simple words: "Oprah did it."
Tim's Marathon Training Class. Fifty-eight students and staff signed up, fully intending to meet the surreal goal of running 26.2 miles in the Twin Cities Marathon October 3. Two months into the schedule, about thirty of us paid the entry fee to the marathon.
Presumably Oprah started from scratch, and so could we. But it does seem ludicrous, when the ultimate goal is a 26.2 mile race, to start with 1.5 miles. And nearly keel. And realize, with a dumb feeling, that cement is very hard. A girlfriend of similar stride and temperament jumped in to be my running partner. We started in March, a dark and cold time, so we actually started on treadmills, indoors. This provided a false sense of accomplishment. Twenty minutes on a treadmill just wasn't that taxing. We began to increase the incline and speed, to feel strong, though mostly amazed that we were showing up at all.
Then came a gentle nudge from Tim. You gotta get outside. That marathon isn't in a gym, on a nice, soft treadmill with a motor doing half your work while you watch telelvision.
And so we ventured out for that first real mile and a half, the humbling experience.
But we did it the next day, and followed the novice/beginner schedule diligently. Each increase in distance met with quite a bit of anxiety, an obstacle more daunting than old knees or not-stretched-enough calf muscles. We continued to honor our training schedule, each day with expressions of fear and awe a bit like first graders in September attempting to cover cowardice with swagger. But, as promised, it became easier.
It's a thrill I can't quite describe. Lots of people achieve all kinds of things more amazing than running a while. Yet it is a thing I never saw available to me. I think of a cross country runner I knew from high school who was disciplined, dedicated, serious. (And so cute.) These are not words I use for me. I still remember who he asked to prom, an athletic girl who was serious and disciplined. Unattainable qualities.
I have to admit, part of the joy comes from the idea that I may at last be prom worthy.
I am not attempting to claim to be disciplined or serious. To be honest, after a fairly easy 15 mile run, (yes, perspective changes that drastically) we let down for about a week, when the fear was not strong enough to motivate, and the legs were sore and tired and heavy. But a week of loafing only six weeks from the race is a good way to get your fear back. A truly disciplined person would not let down. Nor would she not run in the rain, even if the clouds to the west looked very black and like they might begin to throw down dangerous lightning. Tim's niceness wears thin on this point. He is a tiny bit ruthless with people who wimp out of a run in the rain.
I thought pursuing a goal like this would add a dimension to my life, something more meaningful than shoe shopping. I don't mean I would forgo my love for shoes, the uncomplicated fun of trying on a pair of strappy sandals, holding my foot out and tipping it from side to side to admire the lines and imagine the grand places I might go in them. It turns out running opens a whole new world of shopping. The shoes aren't as strappy, but the attire can be quite alluring.
Seven months of training behind me, I still shop. But I have learned a little about perseverance. I have enjoyed the kindness of my friend and running partner, and the sweetness of a husband who rides his bicycle many miles to bring full bottles of water and make sure we're all right. If the race is anything close to as thrilling as the day he and his sons were playing catch in the yard when I came around the corner and they started clapping and hooting, I'll never stop racing.
I have told Tim Byers that he has done an amazing thing. Most of the people in this group are reaching a goal they may never have without his help. That nice humility of his kicks in, he says all he did was open the door. Maybe so. But what a door. Thanks, Tim.
(Written October 1, 2004. Two days before the race.)
Post race report: The course was beautiful, the weather perfect, the view down the last hill to the finish line spectacular, people on both sides cheering, a huge United States flag flown from a St. Paul Fire Department truck ladder. The first 20 miles were easier than expected, the last six, more difficult. I can't wait to do another one.
Thank you for reading.