Can You Do The Impossible?

Can you do the impossible?

Not what other people think is impossible.

What you think is impossible.

Can you do that?

Tuesday, April 15, 2014, was the one year anniversary of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, a race that is perhaps the pinnacle of every runner’s bucket list. Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the bombing, wrote a powerful piece published in the Guardian.  His words reflect upon the iconic photo featuring three people rushing Jeff in a wheelchair to what they hoped was a waiting ambulance amid the smoke and chaos that enveloped Boston’s Boylston Street.

Jeff writes, “one year later, I’ve still only seen the wheelchair photo once. But it still proves that two losers can’t beat three heroes.”  More poignantly he notes, “besides, the photograph isn’t what most people think it is. It’s not a picture of the bombing. It doesn’t show the explosion, and it doesn’t show me being injured. It is a photograph of the rescue.”

This month’s Runner’s World Magazine includes numerous conversations with people who were there – people who had first been featured in the Magazine’s issue which followed quickly after the bombing.

Through their words we are provided a window into their lives during the past year.  Some were injured.  Some were stopped a mile from the finish – cold, exhausted and given few details why their ultimate quest had been interrupted.  Some were first responders or runners themselves who quickly turned back directly into the danger to assist those who needed it most.

A common theme ran through virtually every conversation:  Take stock of life. Your life, and those of whom you love the most.

Few of us know how we’d react in similar situations because we have been fortunate enough not to be presented with them.

I read these words with great interest because I am a runner.  When those bombs went off during this marathon of marathons, we all felt the shock waves. Not that you needed to be a runner to experience the pain of a terrorist attack.

Virginia Tech We Remember

Yesterday, Wednesday, April 16, 2014, was the seventh anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech, my alma mater.  Thirty-two students and faculty lost their lives.   After seven years, it is no longer marked by the obligatory news story on CNN and other major news networks.  I don’t know what to think about that. Glad, I guess, that now Virginia Tech is featured in the news for something else.  Excellent academics, for one. Fantastic research, for another. A rebuilding football team, we hope.

We haven’t forgotten, however.  Every year my facebook feed is filled with fellow alumni and current students marking the occasion. It remains fresh in our minds. Painful. But that is not all.

“No one deserves a tragedy,” to borrow the words of Nikki Giovanni, Virginia Tech distinguished professor of English and renown poet who delivered the words we most needed to hear in the days after the shootings.

On this year’s anniversary I did a seven mile training run, part of my preparation for the Missoula Half Marathon in July. I should have been doing something else, according to the press of business and other demands.  But every runner will tell you there are days when you really need to run.

I ran by two neighbors helping a woman trim an overgrown maple tree in her front yard, methodically cutting off chunks of branches before loading them into a questionable trailer pulled by a mini-van.  I waived hello to a smiling mail carrier making her daily rounds.  Along a nondescript street, an elderly mother passed in a car driven by her daughter, a large bouquet of flowers cradled in her lap.  Perhaps a colorful display in celebration of a birthday.  Maybe a solemn trip to a nearby grave to mark an anniversary of a death. Only they know.

I presume with relative certainty that none of these good people was thinking about the Boston Marathon bombings or the Virginia Tech shootings.  In contrast, I could not stop thinking about both.

It was a good reminder that life moves on. Not to forget, but to respond.

Taking stock, we call it. Remembering what’s important we say. Life is short, reflected the people in Runner’s World Magazine. Insert cliche here.

Except it isn’t a cliche.

Life has its share of personal and national tragedies.

My life changed in response to the Virgina Tech shootings based on my recognition that things were not well with me.  Not in any surprising or impressive way, to be sure, but in a personally important way. It is a work in progress, even seven years later. While we have the capability of improving our faults and shortcomings, eliminating them is perhaps an unreasonable goal.

Among other changes, I decided to run. It seemed the hardest thing to do. I detested running. Told people I couldn’t do it. It laughed at me. Told me I wasn’t worthy. You can’t do this.  You have bad knees.  Grade school classmates mocked you.

So I kicked it’s ass.  Payback for tragedy.  How stupid is that?

My goal to run three miles turned into a goal for seven.  Seven turned into a goal to do a half-marathon. All 13.1 miles of it.  Could I do the impossible?  Not what other people thought was impossible. What I thought was impossible.

A successful 13.1 turned into the next “logical” goal, a full marathon and its 26.2 miles of exquisite glory.  Finishing it put me on top of the world.  I thought about the 32 people who once shared my campus several times during that race.

I ran a second marathon in part because I did not want people to think it was merely a one-time bucket list item. As if one bucket list marathon was all I was capable of. Stupid egos will do that to you.  That ego left me crashing and burning at mile nineteen, only to eventually cross the finish line in a heap of stumbling self-reflection.

I also realized I would never run a Boston Marathon. To run Boston you must qualify. To qualify you must be fast.  I may have changed my life and adopted running for fitness and health, but I am not Boston fast.  For that I will need to live vicariously through my co-workers whose running exploits have always left me in their humbling dust.

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, the national media searched with great effort to find a student, faculty member, or employee who would give the perfect sound bite – the angry diatribe pointing the finger at an institution that had let everyone down.  Only they couldn’t find one.  Those students, faculty members and employees were too busy supporting each other and determining what to do next. They had no time to feed the media’s need for sensationalization.

The enduring image of Virginia Tech, the Boston Marathon, and Jeff Bauman is not one of shootings, bombings, and tragedy, but of community.  Of people doing the impossible in the wake of the unimaginable. Of community in the face of division.

Again, most of us are fortunate enough to not have been put in a situation where we need to react to the unimaginable. We nevertheless remain impacted by them in often profound, personal ways.

Virginia Tech’s motto is Ut Prosim, latin for “That I may Serve.” It is inscribed on many a building and indoctrinated into everyone who passes through its metaphorical gates.  Only “indoctrinated” is a poor choice of words.  It suggests preaching, a requirement, or something nefarious. In reality, “Ut Prosim” is a characteristic seemingly embodied by those who choose to attend and be enriched by the place we call Virginia Tech.  Service to others is a readily accepted part of every day life.

In a great melding of two of my favorite interests, Virgina Tech marks the anniversary of the shootings with a Run in Remembrance, a 3.2 mile run in honor of the 32 who were killed that day.  Though I am 2,000 miles away, I joined thousands of others this past Saturday in that run.

Like yesterday’s mail carrier, helpful neighbors, and the elderly woman, I do not expect you to share equally in my yearly reflection on these two events.  But do know that I recognize you have your own tragedies, both personal and national, that cross your path each year.

And so I ask again. Can you do the impossible? Not what other people think is impossible. What you think is impossible.

Maybe that is running a marathon.  Maybe it is quitting smoking.  Maybe it is starting a foundation.  Maybe it is finally changing jobs.  Maybe it is moving to a new city and a new life.  Maybe it is spending a day helping others.

Whatever it is, it will not be handed to you.  No one steps off the couch and runs a marathon.  It takes dedication and determination.  You can’t cheat the marathon, nor can you cheat any important change in your life. You either do the training or you do not.  If you believe otherwise, you will fail. If you believe in yourself you can do the impossible. Even when it remains a yearly work in progress.

Pick one thing to do that will make a difference – something that will make the world a better place.  Personally or in service to others.  Make a plan and carry it out.  Tomorrow. This week. Soon.

No one deserves a tragedy.  But can you do the impossible?

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