I will never stop searching for him. Neither should you.
The seeker comes in hopes of finding something
definite, something permanent, something unchanging
upon which to depend. He is offered instead the
reflection that life is just what it seems to be, a changing
ambiguous, ephemeral mixed bag.
- Sheldon B. Kopp
Clients who walk through my office door are struggling with various issues and problems that they hope to figure out and get help with to make them go away or at least make them better. Alcohol abuse; drug addiction; anger problems; depression; parenting; relationship issues; you name it, they come and they will keep coming. A 40 year old woman requests to have a couple's session with her 49 year old long time boyfriend thinking I will be able to convince him that his alcohol abuse is destroying their relationship. She reasons this is because my professional profile includes my experiences as a football coach, and she feels he may respond to me. A 25 year old heroin addict calls me and wants to come in because he has to find out why he keeps going back to heroin despite suffering 3 overdoses, a coma, several arrests and causing much heartache for his family. A 60 year old man brings in his 21 year old social phobic son for me to motivate so he can conquer his issues and begin to live a normal life. Will I be able to help all of these clients and countless others with what they are looking for? Maybe yes and maybe no.
Life is ten percent what happens to you
and ninety percent how you respond to it.
- Lou Holtz
What I hope to help them all with is not something they were looking for when they walked through my door: acceptance. Sharing an encounter I had while running my first marathon 28 years ago with a guy racing in the wheelchair division may help me to explain what I am getting at. I have come to refer to this unknown man as "The Wheelchair Guy" while retelling this story over the years. I don't know his name, his age, where he lives, what landed him in that wheelchair and why he was competing in that race. I never met him but I would like to one day to thank him. Let me explain. On Sunday April 24, 1988 I ran my first marathon. It was the NJ Waterfront Marathon with a course that ran through 7 NJ towns and started and ended at Liberty State Park in Jersey City with the awesome backdrop of the World Trade Center. I was 25 years old and very determined to break 2 hours and 50 minutes in the 26.2 mile race, which in my mind would mean something big. I didn't know it at the time but I wanted to break 2:50 so I could break free of the constant grip self-acceptance had on my soul since I was a kid. My secondary goal that day was to break the time of 3 hours which would qualify me in my age bracket to run the Boston Marathon the following year. The weather (low 40's and with little wind) was perfect for running a personal best, and I was without question in the best condition of my life and ready to hammer that fast, flat course.
If you want to win anything - a race, yourself,
your life - you have to go a little berserk.
- George A. Sheehan
I don't really remember the first few miles of the race as the memory of the first miles are usually lost in nervousness and surveying the nearest competition. It's important for the reader to grasp the intensity of the mental state I was in during this race leading up to my encounter with the Wheelchair Guy. The scene that took place in my head as I was approaching the 5 mile mark of the 26.2 mile race is a perfect example. Constantly checking my watch to insure I was on pace, I could see the 5 mile mark approaching and if my calculations were correct I estimated I would hit it at 31 minutes 20 seconds. What I couldn't see as I approached the mark was the first minor hill of the race. This baby hill cost me 20 seconds and I passed the 5 mile mark at 31 minutes 40 seconds. Not a big deal, right? Well, I completely flipped out. I was screaming so loud in my mind I'm surprised the expletives did not leak out. I cursed that hill. I cursed that fast, flat course. I cursed myself for not expecting the hill and speeding up to make up the 20 seconds. Crazy, right? Well it took me about a mile to let it go and get back to concentrating on my goal. Self-induced pressure is the worst kind. PURE HELL. But we need it to get us where we want to go in life.
Following my mental fiasco at the mile 5 mark, I settled into a lead pack of about 12 to 15 runners with the top 5 finishers way ahead of the pack. Although I was an above average amateur marathoner in my prime, I certainly was not good enough to be competing for a top 20 finish. I was on this day, however, because this race was also the 1988 Olympic Marathon Trials and the elite US amateur marathoners started 15 minutes ahead of the open field. This being the case, the competition in the open field was not as great as it could have been and the race began to reflect this fact as the second half of the race unfolded. The last 8 to 10 miles of the race literally became a very long single line of the top 20 or so finishers spaced out about 50 to 100 yards apart from each other. We the race forming into this type of competition I knew it would be difficult to reach my goal of breaking 2 hours and 50 minutes. Why? Because I wouldn't have any runners to fiercely compete with. I wouldn't have one immediately to either side and I wouldn't be sticking like glue to a lead shoulder immediately front of me. It's so much easier to compete with others than to compete with the monster that is your own will. This monster can easily devour you and all your goals in a second, IF YOU LET IT. And it can be so very easy to let it. So now the battle with myself begins.
The difference between a successful person and others is not a
lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.
- Vince Lombardi
To reach my goal I had to average a 6 minute 28 second pace per mile to cross the finish line in 2 hours 49 minutes and 33 seconds. I knew this. I had known it for months. What I didn't know was that on this day everything would be about as perfect as it could be to for me to accomplish this pace except for one thing: the second half single file line of torture. Torture is the perfect word to describe what I put myself through to maintain this pace for 26.2 miles. I was constantly checking my watch and making calculations in my head. One mile I would fall 5 or 10 seconds behind for whatever reason: another baby hill, a dangerous road with traffic; briefly being tempted to let the will monster swallow me up. Then the next mile I would curse myself off for slacking and pick it up enough to get those seconds back. This was my focus. I was all in. I thought about nothing else. The last thought I can remember before my encounter with the Wheelchair Guy had to do with the Ironman - the most difficult one day endurance event in the world where tri-athletes attempt to complete a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and a 26.2 mile marathon. It was around mile 24 and the surroundings were very quiet as I desperately tried to keep up my pace as I felt myself fading fast. "What about the Ironman, Tom?" I sarcastically said to myself. "Those guys have a 2 mile swim and 100 mile bike before they run a marathon. ALL YOU HAVE IS A MARATHON YOU WIMP and you are complaining? You can't keep it up for 2 more lousy miles" and then it happened. I was blasted out of my focused world of hammering myself with my thoughts when a wheelchair racer out of nowhere blew by me and rattled me to my core. I was rattled because the last part of the course was in an undeveloped area there was no background noise of people or traffic and I could not hear him approaching. The surprise of his passing knocked off my equilibrium which is easy to do at that point in a marathon and not that easy to recover. After getting my wits about me again, I didn't see a wheelchair in front of me; I saw red. "This guy could have let me know he was approaching" I said to myself, reasoning that he could have at least said something so I could hear him and prepare for his passing. I then forgot my goal and became focused on something that was absent for the last 10 miles or so: competition. I aimed my sights on him and prepared to gather some energy to bolt past him at the right moment. I saw that moment approaching as the course was about to take a hard bend to the right. "I'll catch him there" I said to myself, and I passed him as he slowed up to take the turn. My first thought on passing him was to maintain speed so I could prevent him from passing me again before we crossed the finish line. This effort was short lived as I immediately noticed we were approaching a short downhill in the course and my legs would be no match for his wheels. As I pulled back some to take on the downhill without tumbling over, the Wheelchair Guy effortlessly blew passed me a second, and final time. There would be no catching him now. And to add insult to injury he capped off our silent little battle by putting both of his hand behind his head as if to give the impression he was leaning back and relaxing on his downhill ride, which of course was not so relaxing for me. Again I felt myself filled with anger and this time I screamed out in frustration "I'll catch you at the (expletive) finish!" As anyone who has run a marathon knows, your emotions are like scrambled eggs during the race and my anger soon turned to shame. I had just cursed at a Wheelchair Racer. Me, a guy who can walk and run, yelled at this poor guy, a guy who could not walk or run and I did it during which may have been the most important accomplishment in his life. With the finish about a mile away and my secondary goal accomplished as I would break the 3 hour mark by about 10 minutes, it was now replaced with another goal: to find the Wheelchair Guy and apologize to him.
I will never forget crossing that finish line with awesome sight of the now fallen World Trade Center in the backdrop. My finishing time was 2 hours 51 minutes and 28 seconds. I fell 89 seconds short of my goal. I had time to lament and reflect on that later however as my first order of business upon crossing that line was to find the Wheelchair Guy. I began scanning the finishing area to catch a glimpse of him as people were cheering and race workers were handing me water and asking me if I felt OK. I then came across my two best friends who waited for me at the finish to support me and take me home. I remember mumbling something to them about a wheelchair racer finishing ahead of me, but they had a difficult time understanding what I was trying to say in my post race, exhausted state. So we left Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, to celebrate completing my first full marathon and qualifying to run the Boston Marathon in 1989. But what would never leave me was my memory of my brief encounter with this Wheelchair Guy, and that I never got the change to tell him I was sorry.
Then I got Mary pregnant, and man that was all all she wrote;
and for my 19th birthday I got a Union Card and a wedding coat.
- Bruce Springsteen
As the years passed and I settled into my career as a counselor/therapist, I would tell the story of my encounter with the Wheelchair Guy every so often and everyone loved it. They loved the unspoken battle I described having with him and they laughed at my crazy intense nature that would have me battling with a man in a wheelchair. They also loved his grit in battling back and forth with me and throwing it in my face as he flew down that hill. But as the years passed my purpose for wanting to meet him changed. Initially I had wanted to meet him to say I was sorry for screaming an expletive at him in anger in the midst of his awesome achievement. I found myself no longer feeling guilt over screaming at the Wheelchair Guy. As the trials and tribulations of my own life and the lives of my countless clients came and went over the years I wanted to thank him. I wanted to thank him for teaching me a lesson about acceptance. I wanted to thank him because this lesson has lasted me a lifetime and I have been able to share this lesson with others in the hope it would help them as well. As I went through an imagined meeting with him over and over in my mind, I could see him scoffing at my initial thought of wanting to apologize and thanking me for not seeing his physical disability and for competing with him man on man and bone on bone in the trenches of that race. Although I never met him, he has taught me that we must accept the realities of our lot in life regardless what they are, and then work with those realities and not allow them to impede our journey toward self actualization. Acceptance is the foundation of all those who you have met who are not putting up any fronts and are genuinely comfortable with themselves. This is a comfort that has nothing to do with financial, marital, or any status you can think of. Such acceptance doesn't have to be of a disability like the Wheelchair Guy, it can simply be to what Sheldon B. Kopp was referring to in the above quotation: that life unpredictably unfolds no matter what, to no specific plan, in no specific direction, and for no specific reason and will keep doing so over and over and over again. And we are left to feel the pain of acceptance, process it the best we can, and then regroup and move on. No one plans to "get a union card and a wedding coat" for his 19th birthday as Bruce hauntingly reminds us in his song "The River" BUT LIFE HAPPENS. After it happens we have choices, or at least many of us do and that sure can help.
I'm hopeful my clients gain a sense of acceptance before they leave therapy and I'm more than glad to do what I can to point the way. The 40 year old woman dissatisfied with her boyfriend's drinking will either accept her situation until it changes on its own if it does, or she will accept she only has the ability to change her own life and move on. The 25 year old heroin addict will either stop looking for why he continues to seek that high and start a recovery program, or he may die searching for an answer that does not exist. The 60 year old man can either accept the situation with his son until it changes on its own if it does, or accept that he can use the leverage that he possesses as a parent to light the fire his son has no desire lighting on his own. So yes, we are all searching for the Wheelchair Guy. We are all searching for acceptance. We are all searching for that moment when we finally and unconditionally accept who we are, where we are, and what we can do to live more productive and hopefully happier lives.
My own search the Wheelchair Guy continues. If he happens to read this piece, wherever he is, I hope he may reach out to me so I can say thanks. But if not, I'll accept it.
|Crossing the finish line at 1988 NJ Waterfront Marathon|
Plan for action
Time and Persistence
Time and Persistence