Up until last week, myself and a group of my workout buddies (really — they are so much more than that label. They are my dear friends. We have formed a bond that is hard to articulate and name. We know it is special. We call ourselves The Village)… so The Village had been training for the Palmetto 200 — a relay race that starts in Columbia, SC and ends 205 miles later in Charleston within a 24 hour timeframe. Each of our 12 member team had been assigned legs — 3 a piece — and we were divided into two Vans. The spreadsheet was set. Our individual paces calculated. Our expected times for completion totaled. Each of our legs were mapped from point A to point B, with details of elevation, difficulty, and distance. Then — one of our teammates’ husband died unexpectedly. She was out…. and then, so were we. We collectively agreed running the race was no longer an option when one of our Villagers was down. But then, she asked us not to cancel. She wanted us to run it without her. She had even orchestrated the details of her husband’s funeral to ensure we could attend and still run the race. From there, one of the Villagers coined the phrase: Running for Russell. That was it!! We knew we had to put our own sorrow aside and do this for our friend, Erin and her departed husband, Russell. We rallied to revamp our plan — a fellow Villager stepped up and agreed to run in her place. Other teammates took on longer miles to make other necessary adjustments. Another Villager baked us cookies and sent along encouraging notes in the bag. We made arrangements to finish the race and return home in time to attend Russell’s funeral. It all happened so fast, but our purpose had been renewed and it had a name: Running for Russell.
Heading into the race, none of us exactly knew what to expect as none of us had ever run a relay like this. This was most definitely going to push us outside of our boxes, push us beyond the comfort of what we knew to be normal. There were going to be long, formidable runs. There were going to be lonely, dark roads to cross. There were going to be sufferable hours without sleep. There were going to be moments that would require us to dig deep to move beyond our mental fears and physical pain. We all expected this. But the 33 hours that unfolded from the time Van #1 kicked off the event until our final runner crossed the finish line was nothing short of phenomenal. Actually, there are many words I’d use to describe the whole experience: emotional, beautiful, hard, hysterical, delirious, exhilarating, painful. Throughout those 205 miles were moments of encouragement and support, moments of laughter and silly fun, moments that rallied an entire van and reminded us all that our pain, our fears, and our shortcomings meant nothing. This was not about us — this was about a man who left this world too soon, and about the family he left behind. It was an undercurrent we could all feel — we felt its power and its levity. We turned our pain into prayers and our fears into motivation. Running for Russell became our mantra and it fueled us all the way to the end.
It was said at Russell’s service that he was always challenging others to good conversation, asking excellent questions that prompted one to give good thought to their answers. A curious fella who was in constant study of life — using a unique lens through which to view the world and live far outside his comfortable box.
It was also mentioned at his funeral the power of this Village. I could feel the hearts of every single Villager in attendance swell. This word has become so sacred to us. We are so much more than a clustered human settlement or community — we are bonded by more than just geographical location; we are bonded by life in all of its beauty and pain.
Russell’s death ended a long suffering battle with a disease that greatly limited his mobility. In particular, he was riddled with pain in his leg and could not walk without assistance. Because of Russell’s condition, he stayed mostly at home and, as a result, a good many of us who ran the race had never met him. It was Erin who our hearts poured out for — and it was probably more appropriate to say we were Running for Erin. Yet, clearly Russell played an even bigger role in our run…. for I believe it was Russell who ran for us. Though I never met Russell, I imagined his legs running those miles, his smile as he crossed each check point, his heart pumping red, hot blood through his healthy veins, and his family cheering him on every step. It was his spirit that kept us going, that gave our legs their power, that quelled the fears in our minds, and that grew the love of our Village, and that will continue to inspire us far past the finish line. I think Russell is still running for us…. somewhere... and he’s challenging us to the conversation; asking us to examine the cracks and bulges of our small comfortable boxes and step out into the beautiful, bright unknown.
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