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Left on Boylston

Guest Contributor

You don’t belong here!

That’s essentially what the television commentators were saying as little-known American runner CJ Albertson sped past the elite men’s field of the 2021 Boston Marathon in the opening miles of the 26.2-mile race. The commentators didn’t pay much attention to him initially because a glory-seeking runner usually bursts out in front of the seasoned pack for his two minutes of fame.

Monday, April 18 is Patriots’ Day and the 126th running of the prestigious Boston Marathon. Every year an estimated half-million people line the narrow streets from Hopkinton to Boston to the last left turn on Boylston Street to cheer on runners and celebrate the holiday. It is the world’s oldest annual marathon, and you must meet—or in previous years exceed—Boston’s strict time standards to run it, unless you choose to raise a substantial sum for charity.

I remember the electric atmosphere and absolute joy I felt both times I ran the race. And I know the heartbreak of having to defer my third entrance after tearing my hamstring and not qualifying again a decade later after a few attempts. To this day, wearing my hard-earned finishers’ shirts with the iconic unicorn logo stirs mixed emotions in me. Anyone who has run Boston will tell you it’s a race unlike any other—and congratulations to all those running it this year! From the fast, downhill opening miles and deafening Wellesley women’s “scream tunnel” to the Newton Hills in miles sixteen to twenty-one and the Citgo sign a mile from the finish, this marathon motivates runners to train harder in hopes of crossing its finish line at least once in their lifetimes.

“I’m Not Supposed to Win”

CJ Albertson had never raced Boston until 2021, but he wasn’t letting up his lead. It didn’t seem he belonged here, however. He wasn’t projected to be a podium contender; his marathon times were several minutes slower than the other men in the elite division. Yet Albertson knew that he was a dominant downhill runner, so he pushed the pace early and gapped the field by more than two minutes halfway through the race.

When he learned the extent of his inconceivable lead at mile 14, a cascade of doubts flooded his mind. He would later say,  

“I’m not supposed to win. I’m not supposed to be the guy who wins the Boston Marathon. I’m bib 29.” So I tried not to think about that. I think [that I] was almost running more with the expectation that, “No, I’m not supposed to win.” I think there was a point in the race where it almost was my race to win, and there was a moment of fear like, “I’m not supposed to win so they’ll catch me, and then I’ll battle,” which I did. So it wasn’t a regret, but just keeping a better mindset the whole race.[1]

Sports psychologists have long recognized the power of “just keeping a better mindset” and its effect on athletes during training and particularly competition. Even actions such as frowning or smiling reveal unspoken beliefs that can have an immense impact on performance (and other areas of life). One study published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise “found that runners who smiled used less oxygen, ran more economically and had a lower perceived rate of exertion than those who frowned and those in the control group.”[2]

Ulster University lecturer Noel Brick, coauthor of the study, adds, “When we make a facial expression, we may experience the emotional state we associate with the expression.”[3] The effusive, world-record marathoner Eliud Kipchoge consistently proves these findings, ever-smiling in races to keep himself relaxed through pain and often victory. I know for myself when I have made a conscious effort to smile when racing or pushing the pace how this simple gesture can prompt gratitude and lightness in my steps.

CJ Albertson would lead the 2021 Boston Marathon for more than twenty miles, captivating commentators and spectators alike. He was finally passed on Heartbreak Hill, the infamous half-mile incline historically named for that very reason, and last of the Newton Hills. But he would battle with joy, he said, and finish in tenth place, passing three runners in the final short stretch on Boylston. He admitted being passed after leading for most of the race could have been “mentally demoralizing, but the way I look at it is I only have five miles left and I’m running with 14 guys who have run between 2:04 and 2:08,” which was “awesome.”[4]  

He continued, “Five miles to go, and I just get to bang it out with guys that, on paper, I shouldn’t even be near. And so why does it take mental strength to do something that’s so awesome? It’s just fun—you would want to do it. I’m not battling pain or tough situations, I’m just engulfed in fun and enjoyment and the challenges of whatever I’m doing.”[5]

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

If you are a runner or have a passion for something that inspires hard effort and joy, you may resonate with Albertson’s remarks. I know I do. I think of pushing myself in a race or on a trail before sunset and especially of running with one track group affectionately named “Misery Loves Company” (MLC). Injuries or other commitments sometimes interfered, but MLC was always just another Tuesday evening away—until COVID interrupted all our lives. Made up of competitive and average runners, MLC has not quite come together since our coach and assistant coach moved on and we lost scheduled access to the school where the group met for nearly three decades. We also lost Casey, a founding member who had recently turned ninety and remained competitive well into his eighties. How I miss his mischievous smile, the group jesting and camaraderie, shared stories, challenging paces, and consistent encouragement as we each pursued our dreams and goals.

Years of running have afforded me enormous joy beyond memories of Tuesday night track and Boston Marathons. Yet I realize now that they have carried loss, and some not yet fully understood or named. Even so, I know well that loss can be a disorienting magnetic pole pulling you and every other loss you have experienced toward it. Loss can suddenly feel like a dark undercurrent with no red-flag warning threatening to drag you under.

Underneath the surface of our lives lie tales of triumph and heartbreak, of personal bests and DNFs (Did Not Finish), of dreams realized and shattered. Furthermore, our experiences of joy and loss can perpetuate expectations and conclusions we may begin to believe like, I’m not supposed to win! These narratives even testify to the ancient wisdom of Scripture: “As a man thinketh so he is.”[6]

Life is the road before us, and the stories we tell ourselves will lead us somewhere. For example, most endurance runners suffer bad patches in a race that often can be overcome by talking to yourself—Just get to the next telephone pole!—by consciously attending to your breathing, foot strike, and nutrition, the shared effort of other runners, the cheering crowds, and anything to propel you to the finish line.

What are the stories you may be telling yourself and where are they leading you? Beyond the laughter and hard work, are you living under the weight of lies that say, You don’t belong here! I have known such false storylines and even now ask myself, What is the recurring narrative guiding my life today? Where is my hope?

I may not be quite the runner I once was, but I believe every day is a gift from God: the recurring narrative and hope guiding my life, I remind myself. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,”[7] said James, the brother of Jesus. And “In him was life,” wrote the Gospel writer John, “and the life was the light of all people.”[8]

Life is a marathon, the miles before us a journey not fully known. Nevertheless, the stories we tell ourselves through a race, injury, or any ordinary day shed light on who we are and who we are becoming. But there is One who has spoken since before the dawn of creation and speaks even now over you and me, exclaiming, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”[9]  

Running throughout ancient Scripture is the voice of the One “who was and is and is to come”[10]—the only One who fully knows who we are and who we are becoming. In the spaces between loss and joy, darkness and light, waiting and becoming is the Eternal Voice ever beckoning us to life, love, and belonging.

Life is a marathon, the miles before us a journey never alone.

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[1] See Kristen Arendt, “An Interview with CJ Albertson After His 10th Place at the 2021 Boston Marathon” (October 14, 2021), https://www.irunfar.com/cj-albertson-post-2021-boston-marathon-interview.

[2] “This is why Kipchoge smiles when he runs (and why you should be doing it too),” Runners World (February 11, 2018), https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/training/motivation/a776539/how-smiling-improves-your-running/.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Arendt, “An Interview with CJ Albertson.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] See Proverbs 23:7 in the King James Bible.

[7] James 1:17.

[8] John 1:4, NRSV.                                                                                                    

[9] John 1:5.

[10] See Revelation 4:8.

Danielle Durant invites others to join her in unearthing the perpetual wonders of beauty and truth found in the ageless drama of Scripture. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) and a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). Danielle is passionate about all things running, nature, and her expressive Maine Coon cat, Simeon.