Katie and I sat in posh armchairs talking. It was a while after suppertime and we were mostly alone in the hotel lobby, a grand, luxurious space where a fountain burbled and an atrium extended high to the roof several floors above.
I’d met her just two hours earlier that Saturday night as she helped register me and other runners who’d come to town for the Wichita Marathon. She was in her mid-20s, had sun streaked blond hair, grayish azure eyes and the outdoorsy good looks of a model in a truck commercial. She wore no makeup and needed none.
Her smile was warm and unconscious. Talking with her was easy.
I told her about my harsh experiences in the Heartland 100-mile race, an ultra marathon held each October just 50 miles north of where we sat. She had an uncle who had run it the same time I did, two years earlier.
It’s not a story I usually tell a stranger. But Katie didn’t seem like a stranger. She listened carefully and then grew quiet and pensive, considering something.
Then she leaned forward and spoke so softly I barely heard her, “I want to tell you mine. I don’t know if I can without tears.”
The story was about her first marathon, the Dallas White Rocks Marathon.
Leon, a senior Wichita runner I’d also met, had volunteered to help her train. For four long months she trained hard, she told me, working toward a tough goal.
“I meant to run a pace of 8:23,” she explained.
“You had it down to the second…”
“I wanted to qualify for Boston. I had to run it in 3:40.”
“You qualified for Boston in your first marathon!” I had already learned she was qualified for the next Boston Marathon; now I realized she’d qualified in this first marathon, a rare performance for a first timer.
She told me about her regimen, that she had done three 20-mile runs and that Leon was with her every step of the way.
And when it came time for the race, he ran the marathon with her too, providing pacing.
But during the race, disaster struck. At a water station, around Mile 17, Katie lost contact with Leon. Among the throng of runners, she couldn’t find him. She didn’t even know if he was behind her or ahead.
She was lost without Leon. His presence had been constant, guiding her for months. Now when she needed him most, he was lost from her.
“You were going solo….”
“I was solo,” she answered.
She could only go on. But the hardest miles were ahead. What would she do?
Around Mile 20 she felt it all coming undone.
“I felt like I couldn’t go on,” she said.
Her family, there to watch, had noticed too. They had started driving along streets parallel to the route to meet her at every mile, trying to cheer her on. A man behind her noticed her cheering family and moved up to run with her.
“He said, ‘I’m running with you. I’m feeding off that,’” she told me. The man wanted to get some of that cheering too.
“It was kinda like tough love,” she said. “Around Mile 23, I said I just I can’t go on. He said, ‘Yes you can! Get your butt moving! You gonna cross that line.’”
The stranger wouldn’t let her quit. He had taken the place of Leon, her lost coach.
Katie’s eyes grew misty as she relived the moment. It seemed a miracle to her—this man arriving just when she needed help the most.
“I finished, and it was because of him,” she said softly.
“Did you talk to him then?” I asked.
“No. When we got close, he took off.”
“Did you ever talk to him, find him in the crowd later?”
She shook her head.
“So you’ll never see him again?” I asked, knowing the answer.
But I knew.
I said, “You know, I wrote in my book that some of the best friends I ever had, I had just for a day—and never saw again.”
“Un-huh, that’s how it was.”
Only I didn’t know the half of it.
Katie wasn’t through with her story. The rest became a bit disjointed, and, at times, I had to infer things between sentences. She went on.
“But here’s the thing. I didn’t find this out until the next day… My grandmother still lives in Kansas, and she’s hard of hearing.”
Katie had to wait until she returned to Kansas after the race and talked with her grandmother in person to learn the next part. Before the marathon Katie had asked her parents to tell her grandmother to pray for her success in that race. What Katie later learned from her grandmother was this:
As her grandmother went into the little Kansas church on the Sunday morning of that race, she had told her companions: “We’ve got to remember to pray for Katie.”
They did remember, too.
“I realized that just about the time I was having a hard time was the same time they were praying for me,” Katie said.
She paused, silenced by the thought, the memory.
“Their prayers sent the man?” I half asked, half stated.
“I just believe I couldn’t have made it without that,” she said.
It was an intensely personal story, told to a stranger. I glanced at Katie, her eyes dewy now, and, sitting there in the hotel lobby, I didn’t know what to say.
“That’s a great story,” I finally mumbled.
But I still didn’t know it all.
I’d interrupted her again; she wasn’t through.
“Here’s the thing…the pictures—my family was making pictures, they were meeting me every mile—in all the pictures…the man was right beside me.
“He took Leon’s place,” I prompted.
“In the pictures…uh, he was 40—Leon’s 61. But in the pictures he looked just like Leon.”
Her eyes were red and watery. She’d been right about the tears. She said it again, absently, softly.
“In every picture he looked just like Leon.”
In Katie’s darkest hour, the timely prayers of her grandmother had sent an angel to replace her lost coach. He had pulled her through the race—and vanished. And it’s no accident that the recorded images of the angel are the same as the coach he replaced.
Katie doesn’t doubt this. Nor should she. The episode affirmed her deepest beliefs and seared her like a hot iron. It gave her a standard by which she will measure life’s events. Already locked away in her lore and her family’s lore, she will tell it to her children, and to their children. It will not die. It is her truth.
Several hundred thousand people run a marathon in this country each year. Ever last one of them has a story. You don’t need to be a runner to understand the story. You only need to know something about aspiration, hope, striving, pain, failure and success, victory and defeat. You only need to know something about life.