Monday, September 27, 2010

Do You Deserve A Medal?

When was the last time that someone pinned a medal to your chest, placed a garland of victory flowers upon your head, or handed you a trophy while saying, “Congratulations. Well done. We were all cheering for you to succeed and you did it.” Did you score a goal unit to win the game, correctly spell some obscure word to claim the spelling bee crown, or close the big deal to keep the company afloat?
A fancy medal was draped over my head as I bowed to accept it last weekend at Canal Park in Akron, Ohio. The fact that thousands of others were receiving similar awards did nothing to diminish my sense of personal accomplishment. I had somehow managed to stumble my way into the stadium after completing 13.1 miles as part of the Road Runner Marathon. I participated in the ½ marathon, others were part of relay teams, while still others ran the full marathon of over 26 miles.
A few days before the race, I had shared with the “Faith and Fitness” group at our church that I had three major goals: 1) Finish the Race, 2) Not Get Injured, and 3) Not Be Last. Well, as Meatloaf once sang, “Two out of three ain’t bad.” I thought I had stretched adequately (doing everything I had always done before), but there was too much lag time between my major stretching at 5:30 am and the start time of the race at 7:00 am. I stretched, ran a little, and walked a lot as I waited for the race to begin, but it wasn’t enough.
Race day was a beautiful morning in Akron, Ohio, and the temperature was around 60 degrees. Since I had never been in an event of this size before (about 7,000 total runners), it was a rush for me. As we gathered on Broadway Avenue in the moments before the race began, there was a smile in my heart and on my face. I was thrilled to be there and was paying attention to all the details.
About four months before that morning and without a lot of contemplation, I had registered for the event online even though the farthest I had ever run in my life was 5 miles, and I had just done that a day or so before. I knew I had to train so I averaged between 25-30 miles a week all summer. This was more running than I had ever done in my life. I felt like Forrest Gump – I started running without a lot of forethought and just kept going. Unlike Forrest Gump, I trimmed my beard and did not attract a single follower. Over the summer, I had a number of runs over 14 miles so I knew I was capable of 13.1.
While those in front (the real athletes) left the starting line at 7am, it took about four minutes for those of us in my part of the pack to even get to that line and over a thousand runners were behind me. People rang cowbells, the Ellet Marching Band was playing, and hundreds of people held up signs of encouragement. After a short distance, we crossed the Y Street Bridge and saw the sun rising on our right. Awesome is the right kind of word to describe that sight. I was looking forward to a joyful morning of running.
About two miles into the race, I felt an ominous twinge in my left hamstring, and I knew that my whole day was about to change. If I had been at home, I would have stopped running altogether and immediately treated my leg. But I wasn’t at home, and I still had 11 miles to run.
Over the next couple of hours or so, the twinge would become “a whole lotta hurt.” Every few miles, I would stop and try some stretching, but the pain would never go away. It was just a matter of how much it hurt. I discovered that if I slowed down that the pain was manageable for awhile. But if I tripped or lost my footing (which I did more than once), it was as if a knife was thrust into the back of my leg. I still appreciated the weather and the encouraging groups that cheered us all on, but that inner and outer smile were no longer present. Hundreds of people glided by me, and I knew that my personal time goal was not possible. My one and only goal became getting to Canal Park alive.
I would love to tell you that in the last couple of miles as we ran on the Towpath and then towards the stadium that I was blessed with a rush of adrenaline that compensated for the piece of bone that was sticking out of my thigh. I would love to tell you that, but it would be BS. There was no bone ripping through my thigh, but neither was there adrenaline or even those wonderful things called endorphins. Just a man feeling a lot older than his 54 years trying to gut it out fifty yards at a time. If you had seen me in those last couple of miles, surely you would have pitied me and wondered what bet I had lost that would result in me running 13.1 miles without any training. You may have concluded that I had been mauled by a wild animal who had granted me a few more minutes of life before he ran me down and finished the job. You would not have described what you saw me doing as running, but, man, it was the best I could do.
So when I managed to haul that nonfunctioning left leg and the rest of my body into Canal Park, it was with a greater sense of achievement than I previously would have thought possible. The medal did not say “Champion” or “Runner-Up” or anything as lofty as that. It said simply “Finisher.” And I was finished in a number of different ways.
I began by asking a question about you: when was the last time you had received a medal – this was my thinly veiled attempt to express an interest in you before I began a long essay about myself. But isn’t it true that most of your accomplishments in life go uncelebrated and unheralded? Sure, if you are lucky, you get awards now and again for things that someone else says are important. But some days even getting out of bed and going in to face your boss and your co-workers takes everything you’ve got, doesn’t it? Some of you who are teachers know how much you have to suck it up even to walk in the classrooms some days. And what about the parent driving one more time to pick up their child at the police station? Or the preacher having the guts to enter the pulpit Sunday after Sunday doing what they can to share God’s word with a group of folks who won’t remember what is said an hour later? Or the person who shows up at a church for the first time hoping to hear a word of hope? Or the person coming forth and being public about their sexual orientation? Or the son or daughter going day after day to visit their Alzheimer parents at the nursing home? Or the single mother who works numerous low paying jobs just to fall a little more behind in their bills every month?
Does anyone know what it takes out of you to live your life? Does anyone suspect or appreciate the struggles that you take on every day? When your personal goals get derailed, who weeps with you and for you and helps you pick up the pieces? Who cheers for you to get through your day? What marching band plays to encourage you?
A few days ago I received a medal. It’s a nice medal, but it is nothing compared to what some people deserve for getting through just one day of their lives. My medal says, “Finisher.” What would your medal say?

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Dreaded Husky Section

A law recently passed in Ohio requires schools to determine a student's BMI (Body Mass Index) in the 3rd, 5th, and 9th grades. This is one requirement of the law entitled Ohio's Healthy Choices for Healthy Childen Act. I became aware of it because the local school district where I live is attempting to opt out of this BMI screening which determines whether a person is underweight, healthy, overweight, or obese. If you don't know your own BMI, a number of online programs are available which will tell you what you have probably already determined from looking in the mirror. It just provides a sobering number that will likely depress you.

This new law brought back memories of the public humiliations I endured as a grade school student. Every fall and every spring, all of the children would be herded together in the gym to have their weight and height measured, called out (not whispered) to a person who would be recording it, and then later written down in our report cards. My class had not been introduced to the concept of the Bell Curve, but every kid would have immediately understood it. You see the goal of every boy or girl in my class was to fall in the great middle section of weight or height. No one wanted to be at the ends because the tallest and the shortest, the heaviest and the thinnest, were mocked by the merely average kids. I remember a girl named Kim G. running out of the room crying as she was jeered for being tall. She looked like a model - tall and thin with long dark hair. Kim was taller than anyone else at least for awhile, but I always competed for the crown of fattest and tallest boy. I knew I was fat even without a BMI screening, but apparently the other kids in my class had no idea I was fat until my startling weight numbers were read aloud twice a year. Thank God for Dave T., a gentle giant of a kid who came to our class near the end of our grade school years. Dave was a great guy (and still is), and he will always have a special place in my heart. Dave was a chunk bigger than anyone else and easily claimed the #1 spot on that Bell Curve. There was no silver medal (or attention) for being the 2nd fattest or 2nd tallest kid, and I was able to step into Dave's shadow.

Concepts like self-esteem had not been invented in my childhood, but now and again a few euphemisms were used for fat. When my mother took us back to school shopping in the fall, we always entered the boy's section with hope, but after scrutiny by the female clerks which sometimes involved a tape measure we were almost always sent off to the dreaded Husky Section. You see, "Husky" was not a breed of dog, but it meant "You are too fat for the normal section, kid." There might have been a simple minded child who said, "I'm not fat, I'm Husky," but most of us knew who we were. In the Husky Section, a clerk would throw a tarp over you, cut out a place for your head to poke through, and then give you a piece of rope to use as a belt. It was a simple look that worked whether you lost weight or became more Husky (which meant obese).

I don't know if stores still have Husky Sections. These days they might be called the normal section. With huskiness on the rise in our grade schools, I probably would not be a contender for fattest kid in the class anymore.
I would love to say that since leaving the Husky Section in middle school that I have never gone back, but it wouldn't be true. Like a lot of you, I have had challenges with weight (translation: I have been overweight and obese). If you are battling with your weight, don't give up. There is always hope - over the past year I have reduced my weight and am now at what the BMI measurement would call "normal" or "healthy." Will I stay there? I would like to say "yes." I hope the answer is "yes." But weight that has been lost has a way of finding its way back home, doesn't it? Even if you think you have left it in the dreaded Husky Section.