We always hear stories of the comeback kid, the underdog, the unknown who becomes the superhero. We hear stories about how they came from nowhere and ended up somewhere big. The focus is always the final triumph, the moment when they get to raise their hands in glory and take a bow while the world applauds them. Newspaper headlines, news stories, and an endless flow of Facebook praise tell the story of what they achieved. But there's a part of the story missing. What happened in that moment when they went from being the underdog to the champion? Did they always have greatness within them that was just overlooked, or did something fundamentally change in an instant? This past weekend I had an opportunity to witness a feat of athletic greatness while crewing for my dear friend Maggie in the 24 hour World Championships held in Turin Italy (yes running for 24 hours is in fact a world class sporting event).
Lets start with a few basics you need to understand. Each gender-based team contains 6 athletes, they all run around a 2km-looped course for 24 hours. The top 3 athletes of each country's distances are added up and team champions are awarded. There's an abundance of other obscure rules about where athletes can get aid, where you can talk to them, what they can wear and so forth. That is all irrelevant to this story.
In case you didn't notice this story isn't going to be from the athlete's perspective, there will be no quotes about the athlete in question's upbringing, training, or feeling at the end when they got to raise their hands in glory. This isn't even a story, it's just 3 moments witnessed from a crew member, a sole tasked with helping their athlete persevere for 24 hours of running from a 10 foot square box on the side of a stadium.
Moment 1: Never Give Up
Its roughly 5:30 pm. The sun is still bright overhead, baking the athletes in an uncomfortably warm heat as they circle the exposed course. Maggie has traveled roughly 50 miles over the past seven and a half hours but things have not been going to plan. In the past 2 hours Maggie has come in twice asking for extended hip massages, and she's currently leaning over a rolling trashcan. She's 1 hour behind the race plan she provided us. I stand to her right, one hand resting on her shoulder, the other holding the trashcan in place. Her skin is sticky and grimy; a mix of sweat, salt, and dirt. Her other crew member Otto stands on her left holding a roll of paper-towels, a wet sponge, a bottle of ginger ale, and another bottle of watered down Gatorade. The team doctor stands behind her, his arms wrapped around her pressing into her stomach. With each compression of his arms she violently empties the contents of her stomach into the trashcan. In between compressions Maggie looks up at us.
Her face is pale and sickly, but there's fierceness in her eyes. Her voice confidently declares, "It's early! I've still got this." before the doctor compresses on her stomach again.
I look up at Otto. We make eye contact and it says it all. Yes the race (24 hours) is not even half over, but if she is having these problems now how can it get better? The suffer fest and pain that surely are ahead of us will be insurmountable. Even if she recovers from the sickness she is the 6th placed lady on the US team. She may finish with a "mediocre" result. There is no way it will be the performance she dreamed of. It will be a long 14+ hours left.
Moment 2: The Hunt
It's roughly 8:00 AM. The sun has gone down, the stadium lights have had a power outage, there has been a fire; it's been an interesting night to say the least. We've all been up for over 24 hours by now. Maggie has bounced back like Otto and myself could never have imagined. The sufferfest never happened. For the past few hours Maggie has been picking off runners. 46th place has become 6th place. There are 2 hours left on the clock.
Otto has positioned himself near the timing mat, where he has been feeding me splits and information about the runners ahead of Maggie. Her pace has increased and she is now cruising over the 2km course in just under 12 minutes a loop. As Maggie approaches the aid station I hold a cup containing a salt pill & her water bottle out.
I scream at her, the excitement radiating through my body as if's my own hunt, "I need you to take salt. Your in 5th, 4th place is 2 minutes ahead and walking."
She nods, swallows the pill and takes a sip of water. I slap her on the back and she's off.
Next lap: As Maggie approaches the aid tent she smiles and shouts, "I got her, give me a number!"
For the next hour and a half every 12 minutes Maggie comes soaring over the track to our 10x10 box screaming "Is third place possible"
Moment 3: The Final Step
The clock reads 23:48. Otto and myself stand poised on the side of our 10x10 box we have called home for the past 23 hours and 48 minutes. As Maggie rounds the track heading towards us her arms and legs pumping at full speed I hold her water bottles out. She shakes her head no.
As she passes us, I look at Otto and can't help but smile. We look like were going on an expedition to a foreign country. Between the two of us we have 2 water bottles, a heat blanket, an assortment of granola & protein bars, and Maggie's passport. We each have a different mission. When the final gun blows Maggie needs to drop a small cone to mark how far she has gone on her final lap. Otto's mission is to protect the cone until the international committee can come and measure it. My mission is to make sure Maggie gets back safely to the USA aid tent.
Otto & I fall in line following about 10 feet behind her on the outside of the course. With each twist of the course her legs quiver and she staggers and grunts in what must be pain. With only minutes left on the clock the results are all but ratified. Maggie is in 4th place, 3rd place is too far ahead and 5th place is too far behind. Yet Maggie fights on, running hard passing runner after runner who are laps behind who have given up on running and resorted to walking.
We approach the timing mat and Maggie is in a full on sprint. There is about 1 minute left on the clock. She doesn't slow down. Her arms and legs keep churning at full effort. Suddenly in Italian we hear a countdown. There's 10 seconds left, she keeps grinding out meter after meter. As the final gun blasts through the air Maggie drops the cone. Her legs immediately start shaking, suddenly unable to support her. For hours she's been running on empty, powered solely by the grit and determination to travel as many meters as possible in 24 hours.
Otto and I swoop in and we immediately wrap her arms around our shoulders for support.
I need to take a quick break here, because I'm not really sure exactly how to describe the feeling that I felt. I had crewed and paced Maggie before, and had helped her accomplished her goals. In those moments I felt happy for her, but this moment was different.
In this moment there was a warm glow that was radiating out of my heart, and a tear in my eye.
Maybe it's because I had witnessed a feat of athleticism that will forever rank as one of the greatest comebacks I have ever seen. From 46th place and puking into a trashcan, to 4th place in the world.
Maybe it's because I got to witness a performance that helped the USA Women's 24 Hour Team win the gold medal. I'm not particularly patriotic, but the joy that gold would provide to the entire team, the three girls who dropped out (I think if forgot to mention this small fact), the coaches, and the medical staff
Maybe its because not only did I get to witness this feat of greatness but I got to touch it in a very small way.
Maggie & I begin slowly hobbling across the track in the stadium towards the American aid station.
"Maggie, your amazing. Do you realize you just won the Gold medal for team USA. Do you realize the comeback you just had? You are my hero!" I exclaim.
I want to kiss her on the cheek, give her a million high fives, and do a happy dance in circles around her for hours.
She looks straight ahead and mutters, "I didn't win us anything. Did you see the girls in front of me? Everybody was so strong."
Take these three moments and do with them what you will. I for one know that I now have seen greatness come out of a low place. I have witnessed the power of believing in yourself until the final gun blows. I have seen that grit, determination, and perseverance can fuel you through moments when your body has already given up.
There's something that happens when you watch an athlete do something incredible. A feeling, a reflex, a warm glow that radiates from the center of your heart. Call it whatever you want, but something changes. The world starts to feel smaller. Watching moments that define years of an athlete's sacrifice and commitment come down to ticks of a yardstick and sheer determination, grit, and perseverance will do that. When you can do more than that, when the outcome is partially in your hands, in your ability to touch them and be a part of that moment... when what you touch will impact a piece of forever... what that feels like must be incredible.
There's something that happens when one of your best friends wins a gold medal for the United States of America and trusts you to be part of the journey, and that makes her final step absolutely unforgettable.
On a personal note, Maggie thank you for trusting myself and Otto to be part of your journey. The lessons you taught me are priceless.