HR Administration

The Last Word: The Magnificent Miles

By Rick Bell

Nov. 23, 2014

It was about mile 5 that I felt my knee awkwardly giving way. By mile 10, my running had mostly turned to walking. At mile 14, even a slow trot was out of the question; it felt like a nail had been hammered into the outside of my left knee.

At that point I came to grips with a realization: Nope, not catching the Kenyans at this year’s Chicago Marathon. I could still walk, but at 12 miles from the finish line I faced two choices: walk it in or walk it home. Hey, 12 miles is 12 miles, whether you’re hoofing it to the finish or to the La-Z-Boy. Oh, and no vehicles at the aid station to drag your sorry, broken-ass body back to the finish line. Believe me, I checked.

In full sulk mode as I considered my limited options, I glanced to my left to see a woman — sort of moving in that race-walker style with her arms pumping in rhythm, eyes focused dead ahead and decidedly on a mission. Considering that I was feeling terribly sorry for myself, I’m surprised I noticed anything other than the black cloud directly over my head and the rock I was kicking along.

Dressed in all black, black cap, black Saucony shoes with pink trim and I’d guess in her early 30s, Speed Walker sure wasn’t slowing down to ask if I needed a shot of consolation and a Gatorade chaser. Yet as she passed me, it was as if a bolt of lightning from my overhead storm cloud shook me from my funk. I couldn’t run, but I could walk, dammit. And I was determined to use this unsuspecting pace person to pass on quitting and get past the finish line.

I’d be lying if I told you those next 12 miles went quickly or easily. Nonetheless, as she motored past people who had blown by me earlier on the course, I followed right along. In “Siddhartha”-esque fashion, my journey of 26 miles found fresh focus with every new step.

Someone with a megaphone near the finish line urged us to run the final 400 feet or so. She did, so did I. Shortly after crossing I caught up with her. With a twinge of guilt I admitted that I’d been pacing with her, that she inspired me to shake off my dark cloud and finish the race.

As aides draped foil sheets over us, she told me her race story: Janet — I think that was her name — was running her first marathon. A doctor from Dallas who graduated from Northwestern University, she suffers from asthma and had a severe attack in the second mile. “I was determined to finish,” Janet said.

And she did — by walking the final 24 miles. Past me; past thousands of others. No moping allowed. In doing so, Janet motivated me when the chips were down.

“I’m so glad I could be an inspiration to you,” she told me, and she started crying. Perhaps it was the inner frustration at having to walk that finally came pouring out, or maybe it was the huge emotional sigh of relief you inevitably experience after completing a marathon, or possibly that she just received an unexpected nod of recognition for a job well-done. Janet earned her medal along with my eternal appreciation. We hugged, congratulated each other, grabbed one final Gatorade and went our separate ways.

Inspiration is a funny thing. It often comes at the oddest moments and in the strangest of places. Last year, I found inspiration to compete in my first marathon on an advertisement on the train. Inspiration to write this column came not from a race, but from an unsuspecting doctor with asthma.

I have been told by several internal communications folks that the most popular stories on company blogs, videos and communiqués are the ones told by and about fellow workers. It’s more real, and it seems more companies are publishing authentic stories from staffers internally and externally. When planning the message you want to send companywide to fire up the troops, consider your rank-and-file employees sharing their own inspirational stories, not just the Tony Robbins types.

If you were to ask what inspires me, chances are you’d get a blank stare and a shrug of my shoulders in return. I can’t identify it, but I know it when I see it.

And I witnessed it on Oct. 12 at mile 14 of the Chicago Marathon. Janet’s 24-mile walk was a dash to the finish line that will inspire me for years to come.

Rick Bell is Workforce’s managing editor. To comment email

Rick Bell is Workforce’s editorial director.

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