Saturday, August 16, 2008

Limit Experiences and Being Human

I watched the Olympic women's marathon tonight. It is such a compelling event. And tonight's race had so many amazing scenes. The 38 year old Romanian breaking away from the leaders and cruising through the tape. The Kenyan and Chinese women sprinting at the end of 26 miles, passing each other back and forth for the silver medal. The British woman finishing through leg pain, pain from an injury that kept her from training leading up to the games.

The thing about the marathon is its extremity. It requires everything you have, physically, mentally, emotionally. Finishers are spent. Faces drained of focus, yet full of unguarded emotion. I was touched by how the stadium full of fans went crazy as each new runner entered to finish. They recognize the accomplishment regardless of what place a runner achieves.

I've run one marathon. Better put, it ran me. One of my prized possessions is the finisher's t-shirt I have from the Seattle marathon. I registered early, which the entry form assured me guaranteed me a finisher's t-shirt upon completion of the race.

I ran well for the first 17 miles, ahead of my target pace. But I developed stomach problems and spent extended times in less than ideal circumstances losing the contents of my stomach. I ran the last 7 miles or so dehydrated. I got charlie horses in my quads. I would run until my legs would seize, then walk until they relaxed. It was the longest hour of my life.

When I approached the finish, a few friends and people I didn't even know cheered for me. When I crossed the line I dissolved in emotion. I had no way to check them. I can't describe how I felt. I wasn't elated. I wasn't relieved. I was just at the end of me and I couldn't hold back the tears.

When I went beneath the football stadium of the University of Washington to collect my t-shirt, I was told that they had run out. Run out?! How could they have run out! I registered early. They promised me a t-shirt would be waiting for me if I registered early. Who had my t-shirt? Surely this was a mistake! Through tears I explained to the poor race volunteer that I had registered early. That they had promised me a t-shirt. I finished and they promised! I couldn't hold back the tears. I was sobbing, Now, I knew it was ridiculous to be crying over a t-shirt. I knew it as it was happening, but injustice had found me at the end of my rope, and I was undone.

A woman watching this pathetic scene came up behind me and wrapped a mylar blanket around me and hugged me. She just held me while I sobbed. The poor worker behind the t-shirt stand didn't know what to do. My friends acted like they had no idea who I was. (They sent my t-shirt in the mail a few weeks later).

Don't get me wrong, I have no idea what its like to run so fast for so long. But I know something of the feeling of a limit experience, something I recognized in the women finishers tonight.

There are limit experiences all along the continuum of life. Some are moments of accomplishment, like finishing a marathon. Some are related to enduring a round of chemo or giving birth to a child. But whenever they occur, they measure for us in meaningful ways what it means to be human. And these measurements often combine pain with glory.

I've been in animated conversations this week with colleagues about what it means to be human, or better, what it means to have real doings with God. I'm discovering that I have a higher view of humans than I thought. Don't get me wrong, humans are a damned mess. I have seen ruin and know fault lines run deep through my own heart. But I have seen lives rise majestically from the ashes of poor beginnings. I have seen beauty. And it is good.


Kristi said...

Great post, Mark. Sports bring out such an amazing emotional range, even as t.v. spectators.

Finding our limits through physical trial is a truly amazing (& excruciating) experience. One learns so much about oneself that could never be known otherwise. I've had two such experiences - my first mountain climbing summit (wait, I have to get back down??) and birthing my 11 lb, 5 oz baby (wait, you want me to do what??). Those become those before and after moments.

I'm watching the Olympics while doing this (did you see that 100 final????), so I may have missed it. So how did you get the t-shirt?

Mark Love said...

Ah, good question. They mailed me a t-shirt a few weeks later.

11 lbs, 5 oz. sheesh.


Anonymous said...

"Don't get me wrong, humans are a damned mess."

That made me laugh.

I remember the time that I got attacked by someone in the neighborhood I work in. First of all, I can't fight; second, I was trying not to retaliate - he was fifteen and drug-crazed, but I was trying to get through. That is my limit experience - pain, mental and physical, and feeling so defeated. Something very good came out of that experience, but after it was over, I just sat by myself and cried, empty of any other feeling.

Good post.