The summer of 1968 when my Mama and Daddy were preparing for my arrival and their new roles as parents, a man from Tanzania, John Stephen Akhwari, represented his country in the summer Olympics marathon taking place in Mexico City. He had never practiced at such altitudes, and during the race, he cramped. Just before the halfway point, when the runners were moving around each other, he was hit. John Stephen fell, injuring his knee and dislocating the joint. He also hurt his shoulder when he hit the pavement. Out of 75 runners who began the race, 57 finished. When the crowd had dwindled and the sun had set, a television crew was sent out when they heard that one more racer was about to finish. John Stephen Akhwari was number 57, finishing an hour after the gold medalist.
I had never heard this story before yesterday. The pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church, my Mama’s church, shared the story during the All Saint’s Day service. The story in itself is inspirational. That this runner could finish in all of that pain–the drive, the intensity, pushing through the pain. Yeah. That’s something I could sit and meditate on for a while. Without even hearing the rest of the story.
Oh, but the rest of the story!
The video played on the screens at the front of the church where the words to the hymns had just been shown. When John Stephen stepped into the stadium and the cheers of the sparse crowd went up, I had goose bumps. His pace seemed to pick up as he got closer to the finish line, and the crowd cheered him on. I can only imagine the pain he was in or the thoughts he was having. What was driving him?
After his inspirational finish, an interviewer asked him why he kept running, and he replied:
Wow. To finish the race. Just starting it is not enough. Follow through. Push past the pain, past the changes that make it hard to breathe, work through the exhaustion. Because we aren’t here just to start, we are here to live until the finish. Don’t give up. No matter how hard I, or we, want to.
I can see my Mama nodding now.
For almost fifteen months after Daddy died, when I struggled with anger and depression and anxiety, Mama was breathing. She was pressing on through the pain and exhaustion. And the whole time she was running her own race, she was cheering the rest of us on. Encouraging me, all of us, to let go of the hurt and bitterness and live. And Love.
Which she did.
After the video screen went dark, John Stephen’s words seem to echo through the sanctuary. It was then that Pastor Lyons spoke to the heart of the story. Not only did John Stephen push through all that would try to hold him back, he knew that he wasn’t in it just for himself. He knew why he was running and whom he was running for. He knew it wasn’t just about him.
So did my Mama. Sometimes I forget that, but she never did.
She ran her race. She might have been slowed down by what was on the path, but she never stopped and she never gave up. And when the time came, borrowing from an image that Mama’s dear friend and Associate Pastor Hugh shared yesterday, she ran on ahead, finished the race, and headed on up to The House. Yes. That made me smile.
I’ve seen my Mama run a few times in my life. When my sister ran because she didn’t want her allergy shots. When I ran from her when I knew I was in trouble. (I paid for that one–you can’t outrun trouble. Unh-uh.) And when that snake jumped out of the tree right at her.
But when I think of the image of her running on up ahead on the road, free of everything that had once slowed her down, finishing the race–well, that makes this girl want to stand up and clap sure enough. And give a good and loud hoot and holler. Good job, Mama. Way. To. Go.
And now I need to work on getting myself back in the race. To remember why and for whom I am continuing on this path. Mama hasn’t been the only one talking to me lately and cheering me on. The poet Mary Oliver has as well. No wonder, as she has been compared to Emily Dickinson, my favorite poet.
Just the other day I came across this and I was reminded of it tonight:
Well, yes ma’am I was. But I’ll stop it. Right now. I’m working on getting that second wind and I’m starting to remember who was beside me as I started this race. They might have run on up ahead to The House, but they wouldn’t be happy if I stopped now just because I can’t see them on the path anymore. No ma’am, I’m going to get my act together and get back in there…..I will, I promise. Just let me catch my breath, and I’ll be on my way.
Much of the information about John Stepehn Akhwari was found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stephen_Akhwari.
See his inspirational finish here: