Where to Find Your Inner Athlete
It’s not where you think. This story starts under a Penske truck.
It was a week ago today that I learned what it really means to be an athlete.
It was at the start line of the Boston Marathon, a day I’d dreamt about for five years. And there I was, sitting underneath a Penske oil truck to stay out of a downpour, shivering in the freezing cold and rain, holding a bag of wet bananas. I was drenched, cold, and miserable. It was far from the sunny walk through historic Hopkinton (“where it all begins”) I had conjured in my mind as the start of the Boston Marathon.
But it was the arena, and I was in it. Under that Penske truck, I realized that athletes aren’t made at finish lines. They’re made at cold, wet starting lines.
My favorite speech of all time is Theodore Roosevelt’s Citizenship in a Republic speech, which holds the famous excerpt known as the “Man in the Arena” speech. It goes like this:
I think for a long time, I believed that a person became an athlete when they won competitions. What I learned at Boston is that the athlete is the one that gets into the arena and endeavors. The lesson was a long time coming, and it started like many “late in life athlete” stories start: on a couch.
About six years ago, my husband and I were watching a track competition on TV — I think maybe it was an Olympic trial. I was a low-key runner at the time, jogging 2 or 3 miles, 2 or 3 times a week. And I said, as a runner broke the tape, “I cannot imagine what it would feel like to win a race. I could never do that.” And Taylor said “What do you mean? I could win a race.”
If you know my husband, you know he’s not a runner. In his own words: “I move slowly and lift heavy things.” So I muted the TV and looked at him incredulously and he said “I mean, not today. But if I decided I wanted to win a race, I could train and work hard and I could win a race.” Then he was quiet for a minute, and then said “Wait! Do YOU not think you could win a race?!”
Of course I couldn’t. My reasoning then was simple: I run, but I’m not really an athlete. Never have been. Never played sports as a kid. Don’t like games that involve a ball. (They have an odd way of always hitting me). Oh, and now I’ve had 3 kids. I’m a lot of things, but not an athlete.
He was as incredulous as I was a minute earlier. We were peering at each other like two zoo animals — unsure of what we were seeing, unable to fathom what felt obvious to the other.
And then he said something that changed my life: “Well, you definitely can’t win anything if you don’t believe you’re an athlete. So it’s time for you to start acting like an athlete.”
And he didn’t just say it. For my birthday a month later, he hired me a running coach and signed me up for a small race. He watched me move up the ranks in teeny races, racking up race bibs and medals that we hung up in our basement by the treadmill. And when I told him “I want to run the Boston Marathon,” arguably the most prestigious marathon in the world, he said “well, then you better get to work.”
And so I got to work. Qualifying for Boston required me at my age to run an 8:20 min/mile pace for 26.2 miles. When I started training, I ran a 9:45 min/mile, and I couldn’t run more than 13 miles.
Cue the 80s-movie training montage. I got coaches and read countless books. I trained and trained on the roads and on my treadmill, always running completely alone. I ran my hometown marathon in May of 2018. My kids and my sister and my husband and my best friend were all there. And I missed the qualifying time by 5 minutes. They hid the sign they made that said “Boston bound!”
I just about gave up on the idea. But then in January of 2020, with zero idea of the pandemic about to swallow up the world, I had a conversation with two coworkers, and said “I think I want to try again to qualify for Boston but I don’t think I can do it by myself.” They agreed to run with me, and we signed up for a June marathon and got back to work.
We had a coach who wrote us workouts, and we ran inside the gym on an endlessly boring indoor track through Nebraska winter. Our endurance wasn’t great, and we needed to walk for 20–30 seconds after every mile just to be able to handle the longer runs. So when our watches beeped at each mile, we sighed with relief and took the walk. That glorious sound became our unofficial team name: The Beeps.
We all know what happened next. The pandemic hit and every race we set our sights on was canceled for 18 months. So we made our own races (one was inside a warehouse on a 300 meter loop of plank flooring from 1920), we kept building our fitness, we kept seeing our paces hit new levels.
We forged a friendship, built each other up, and upheld a semblance of schedule, community, goal setting, and accomplishment through the long months when nothing made sense.
And fiiiiinally, in October of 2021, we finally got to race a real race at the Chicago Marathon. After all that work: we qualified for Boston.
A lot of Boston runners have a story like this. A story of failed qualification attempts, setbacks, injuries, challenges, triumphs. I think it’s why toeing the line at the historic start at Hopkinton feels like such a big deal to all 30,000 runners out there. Getting there is its own accomplishment, and being there is often the icing on the cake.
So last Monday, I crawled out from under the Penske truck, threw away the last of the wet bananas, and shed a few layers of clothes before walking to the start line. And when the gun went off, and I ran across the start with my best running friend, the race was won. Every step after that was joyful. Every mile was a celebration. I think I said “thank you” about a thousand times along the course, to every single Boston reveler that I got to high-five and to the thousands who cheered us up and down the Newton hills.
I was so thrilled by the view from inside the arena. From inside the shoes and behind the bib of an athlete. And as I ran down Boylston Street while my husband cheered the loudest of all, I knew he had been working for years to help me see that view. Because of that day on the couch,
I strove valiantly.
I knew great enthusiasms.
I knew great devotions.
I spent myself in a worthy cause.
And in the end, I knew the triumph of high achievement.