the action or process of gradually reducing the strength or effectiveness of someone or something through sustained attack or pressure
Twenty thousand people clogged the streets of downtown Cincinnati. In the pre-dawn haze, chatter swarmed over a great many subjects, punctuated by the squeak of shoes against wet pavement and the spring-loaded slam of a hundred porta-potty doors. The stage was set for the 18th Annual Flying Pig Marathon.
A thousand thoughts flood through your mind in those anxious moments before you cross the starting line. I hadn’t trained for this race. It was just another spur of the moment thing, just like the last marathon I ran. It wouldn’t be a record setter, I already knew that for sure, but I just wanted to get out there and run hard, make a new memory, and have a good time. I never could have imagined how it would end for me.
I told myself it would be easy. My last marathon, a month previous, was the most brutal I’ve ever run, and thanks to a mis-measured course, I was in nearly 28 miles of vicious hills–around 3,500 feet of elevation climbing and an equal amount of descent. Like a death-march, one by one, the trail claimed runners. As I started the second half, I debated whether or not I really should continue. Around 18 miles in, the trail took me down, and I struggled to carry on with bloody knees and bruised determination. When it was all said and done, it was my worst marathon finish time. Ever.
This wouldn’t be like that. “These hills are nothing compared to that,” I kept telling myself. Others told me, it would be all downhill after mile 9. All I wanted this time was to keep under 5 hours. I figured it was a realistic expectation given my sporadic training schedule and my hectic lifestyle in the preceding months.
The first miles of the race were as jovial as usual. I have this habit of randomly shouting out bits of goofy encouragement to my fellow runners along the way in a gravelly half-pirate voice. “Before us is the bridge to Ohio! Shall we turn back? Or shall we take the bridge? Take the bridge!” Half of the people laughed. The other half–well, the other half is irrelevant. I saw a woman look over her shoulder a couple of times and then heard her say to the man beside her, “I don’t see him.” I realized she was trying to see who was calling out. I ran alongside and said, “Be ye lookin’ fer a pirate?” We all burst out laughing. “Yaaar! A pirate in disguise!” The man said. “Aye, ye land lubber. Shall we take the bridge? The bridge is ours!” I shouted back. I kept seeing that same couple every few miles for the next few hours. It served to do much to ease the pain of the journey.
Attrition is a terrible thing. In each of us, there is a measure of strength, of endurance. Any one of us could go one mile. Were someone to ask at the end of that mile if we were capable of going another mile, most would say yes. Repeat that sequence 6 times and there will certainly be a gradual taper of those willing to continue. The distance to be covered each time is the same, but the resources available are increasingly taxed and diminished.
Anyone who has run beyond a half marathon can tell you that there is a real, physiological threshold the body crosses. After you’ve crossed it, everything your body stored up in preparation for the ordeal is gone. All you have left is your mind and whatever extra fuel you carry or is provided on the course. It takes a massive toll. Rocks become boulders. Hills become mountains. Hope becomes desperation.
On the Flying Pig course, there was a massive hill that ended just before the course split for the half and full marathon, around mile 9-10. Like the nut I usually am, I shouted out random encouragement to my fellow runners, and slowly but surely, we crested the hill. I tried to recall the course map in my head. “I think it’s all downhill from here,” I said to myself. The previous year, when I’d done the half, it had been all downhill, so I was banking on the idea the full course was similar. I was sadly mistaken. There was a nice gradual downhill after the split, but from there, constant “rolling hills,” as they call them. It’s a net downhill. You go down more than you go up, but you go up a hell of a lot.
Sixteen miles or so into it, the 4:30 pace crew passed me. Part of me wanted to surge and keep up with them. Another part of me knew there were still some hard miles left, and as my body sounded off a few warnings of the cramps that were soon coming, I realized I hadn’t brought the salt tablets I usually bring, which are my surefire cramp remedy. Better to hold back, pace myself, and see what’s left in the tank around mile 20.
The humidity was totally awful. The sweat runs down your legs and into your shoes. If for no other reason, I’m in love with my inov-8 running shoes because, being so breathable, even when the sweat flow should be causing a puddle, my feet are still relatively dry. And no, I’m not paid to say that. They just work really really well for me. Anyway, I needed something…anything to get my mind off of the miles ahead. I looked for my pirate buddies. A “yaaar” would do me good, but they had vanished over the next hill. It was just me. Cramps hit hard. I had to stop and stretch. I hate stopping. Once the momentum is gone, it takes so much to get going again. I pushed a hard walking pace up the hill. There was another guy walking too. We struck up a conversation. It helped a lot. Within a few minutes, I’d been able to block out all of the pain of existence and movement, and I was ready to run again.
The volunteers at the aid stations were so awesome. Their encouragements kept a smile on my face. “Young man, you’re doing great! You’re looking good,” one of them called out as I passed by. Just four miles to go. Soon I heard the theme from Chariots of Fire playing in the distance. A old fellow was sitting in his front yard with a speaker and a smile on his face. I couldn’t help but smile and wave.
With just over a mile to go, I heard another sound. I couldn’t tell if it was crying or suffocating. I slowed my pace and came alongside a young woman who was fighting back tears, barely able to breathe. I could have kept running, but long ago, I learned that running isn’t just about me. It’s not about getting myself across the line. We’re all out there together. We are suffering together. And we can overcome together. I put my hand on her shoulder and asked if she was ok. She wasn’t doing great. She said she wanted to quit. She wanted to give up. I could tell she was in excruciating pain. I asked if I could stay with her. She said I didn’t have to. I stayed. There was a water station. We slowed to a walk. I knew how bad it hurt. I ran the same course. The hills were devastating. The humidity was stifling. The attrition. The attrition was deadly.
In those last few miles, I’d been fighting back my own tears. And I never cry. I knew how bad it was out there. I was out there too. She was finally able to breathe. Within a few moments she said she thought she could run again, and so we ran. There was just one little hill left. And three quarters of a mile to go. The skyline that was once on the horizon was now spreading open for us. The cheers of the crowd grew just a little louder. I don’t know what I said to her. I just remember knowing, if I could keep her talking, it would keep our minds off of the brutal assaults of the pavement, and we would be one step closer to finished.
Life is a marathon. A battle of attrition. Some people are able to rocket through all the way, but for most of us, the journey is slow and painful. Hills of despair break our will to move forward. The scorching of the sun sears what is left of our sanity. Resources are depleted. The resulting cramps threaten to immobilize us entirely. Left on our own, our defeat is all but assured. But we are not alone.
Beside you is another, striving, struggling to survive. Alone we are weak, but together we are strong. Before I started running those last miles with the young lady, all the thoughts that flooded my mind were how to keep from collapsing until after I crossed the finish line. I had accepted the certainty of collapse and was just bargaining with my body to hold our a little longer. I had to turn my focus from myself to the greater goal…for all of us to cross the finish line.
And then our moment came. “Do you hear that?” I said, turning towards her. “They’re cheering. They’re cheering for you!” Across the finish line. The race was completed. They draped medals upon us. I turned to her and smiled. A sweaty hug between two strangers who didn’t even know each other’s names.
It all impresses upon me a simple lesson in life. Alone, we may be weak, vulnerable, and unstable. Together, united, anything is possible. It takes a heart committed and a mind determined. No one gets left behind. Not just in a marathon, but in daily life, if you could be that person, then be that person, and if you can’t be that person, find that person. Stick together. Fight together. Strive together. Suffer together. Overcome together. In this war of attrition we call life, there is only one way we all make it.