We’ve all heard the moral, “Slow and steady wins the race,” the lesson of arguably Aesop’s most famous fable, which tells the story of the Hare, arrogant and fast but ultimately unsuccessful, and the Tortoise, humble and steadfast, whose determination wins the day.
There is, however, a rarely discussed secondary lesson in this fable, a lesson that is far more common in our society, and that is the danger of giving up before crossing the finish line. The winner isn’t the one most prepared, best qualified or even most deserving, but the one who finishes the race.
I think this is the lesson we need as we enter the holiday season, 11 months into a pandemic and facing a second surge we had hoped to avoid but predicted to be worse than the first.
Many years ago, at a particularly challenging moment, I found a pamphlet titled “Train to Run a Marathon in 6 Months.” I was all in. I signed up and started training, and little by little, I grew stronger. Our coaches would tell us, “Find your pace and keep going.” Each week we would add more distance, but the coaches never pushed us to go faster because, as they kept telling us, the goal was to finish.
Many lessons came from that training: supporting one another, learning to give what you have, little by little you will grow stronger. But the lesson that really stuck with me was the story behind the marathon. You see, 26.2 miles is the distance from Marathon to Athens. The distance legend tells that the messenger Pheidippides ran to notify Athens that the Athenians were victorious against the Persian army, after which he promptly dropped dead.
The lesson was that the human body is built to sustain only 20 miles, and the last six miles are a mental exercise. The reality is quite different given that Pheidippides was a professional messenger for the military and had likely run 300 miles prior to the Marathon-to-Athens run, but the analogy still holds, because the lesson of that last six miles is that once you stop, you cannot start again.
I saw this lesson come to fruition when I ran a marathon the following year. The organizers had a well-intentioned but ill-conceived victory lap and red-carpet run. When runners completed the victory lap and hit the red carpet, they didn’t realize they hadn’t reached the finish line. They would stop at the red carpet and that was it, they could go no further.
Our coaches, seeing what was happening, stationed themselves on either side of the red carpet and ran alongside the runners, telling them to keep going and, if necessary, grab them under the arms to carry them the last 100 meters across the finish line.
As we each finished, we joined them in cheering the runners to keep going. Anyone with anything left would join in running alongside the last 100 meters. As we recovered from the race, we would give what we had to the remaining runners, determined no one would fall short. Runner after runner, hour after hour, we watched, cheered, cried and helped when we could. Though some people were part of our group, many were strangers, but in that moment, we were all one team. We didn’t go to the celebration. We didn’t leave or do any of the usual post-marathon things. We stayed until the last runner crossed the finish line. I will never forget the combination of admiration, awe and fear I had for my coaches that day.
I tell this story because we are all in the last six miles, and we’ve been offered multiple victory laps and red-carpet runs, but the finish line is still 100 meters away. Right now our health providers and emergency services are standing at the red carpet, carrying our essential employees and law enforcement, teachers and support staff, our small businesses, hospitality, students, families and seniors across the finish line, but they are exhausted and they need help. I know how hard it is to keep going when you want to be done, but just like that day, we can stay in this moment, and what comes from us enduring this race together will be so much more meaningful than the ceremony and traditions to which we are accustomed.
This holiday season, let’s stay in the race. It isn’t about who wins, it’s about getting everyone across the finish line, and it’s going to take all of us helping, all of us giving what we can. Let’s make this a holiday to remember not for those we lost but for those we saved. Thank you to everyone who continues to be in this race.