On November 12, 2011, I ran my first marathon in Richmond, Virginia. America’s Friendliest, to be exact, and believe me, the name speaks for itself, and I can confirm this: they get their name honestly.
It was one of the greatest races of my life, but also the most painful. Not in the usual way 26.2 miles can hurt, but because I sustained my worst running-related injury there.
I went into this race with the gnawing fear that my knee would act up. Just three weeks earlier, I had set out on my last long run when my knee began to tighten up so much it felt as if the tendons were tearing, leaving me writhing in ripping pain. After stopping and stretching several times to “loosen it up,” I ended my run at 11.5 miles for fear of injuring myself further and jeopardizing my upcoming race.
At the time, I had jumped on the IT Band Syndrome bandwagon, certain that was what was wrong with me. After much research and consulting with my physical therapist friend, I went into the race equipped with preventative stretches
and a whole lot of hope for the best.
I started off strong and was feeling great…and then there it was. My fear became realized around mile 10.5. And by realized, I mean no amount of self-stretching, begging, pleading, or bargaining was going to make a difference, let alone relieve it. I was in blinding, ripping pain, and there was no end in sight.
For 13.5 miles, I pulled over to the curb to perform desperate stretch and release moves in hopes of unlocking my knee for another minute or two. As the miles ticked by slowly, the stops became more frequent and the moments of release became less and less. Then, a miracle happened.
Just near the Mile 24 marker, I was hobbling over to the curb for yet another stretch stop when a presumed race volunteer saw me and asked the magic question “Is it your IT band?” When I nodded, near tears at his acknowledgement, he asked “Do you want me to stretch it for you?” Ever-so-grateful and desperate as can be, I nodded and lied down on the sidewalk without question.
For at least 15-20 minutes, my angel, who sported a brown Nike hoodie disguise and introduced himself as John, stretched, pulled, massaged, pumped, and did so many maneuvers on my leg and knee that I couldn’t possibly tell you about them all. I thought nothing of the fact that I was all over a public sidewalk, covered with dirt and leaves as he worked his magic. He talked me through my part, gently giving me instructions like “hold it there,” “don’t let me bend your knee,” and “breathe.” Thinking he was just giving me a quick fix, I would attempt to get up, only to be told “Wait, we’re not done.”
After about 10 minutes or so, he told me to get up and see if I could run. The pain was still there, but my knee was a little looser than before. He told me to lie back down and take off my shoe. As he grabbed a hold of my foot, I yelped as the huge blister that had developed on my big toe burst under the pressure of his hands. He did something that caused my ankle to pop, and said “Your ankle is throwing your knee out. It happens to my better half all the time.” After another few minutes of tending to my ankle, he said I was good to go.
As he helped me up, I thanked him again and again, tears of gratitude strangling my words. He smiled, wished me luck, and waved me on my way. As I stepped off the curb, I turned around for a moment to watch him walk down the street, backpack on his shoulder, continuing to his destination. My Mile 24 Angel. Smiling, I set off…I had a race to finish!
With a Joge running alongside me, yelling words of encouragement the entire way, I ran the final 2.2 miles painfully, but without stopping.
Needless to say, crossing that finish line was one of the greatest moments of my life. While my goal time was abandoned early in the race, I know without the help of my Mile 24 Angel, it would’ve taken a lot longer for me to get there. “Better late than never” never rang truer than that day.
It wasn’t until the car ride home that Joge enlightened me on my misconception: this man was not a race volunteer. He was simply a man walking down the street who saw a need and offered his services. My Joge, God love her, had been filming most of this experience on her iPhone, so while at first we laughed at my misfortune, I was so grateful she did. I can now relive it anytime I wish, and never is there a time when I don’t choke up watching it.
Having told this story many times over to my friends, family, and coworkers, a lot was pointed out to me that I wasn’t immediately aware of at the time. Like the fact that it was out of character for me to have zero hesitation in trusting a stranger to not only touch, but actually perform work on me, and of course, the whole lying on a dirty public sidewalk. My response is simple. During a marathon, I am completely exposed and raw, and my thoughts are all over the place and anything but coherent. While I may not have been thinking clearly at that point, I can honestly say right now…I believe people are meant to cross our paths for a reason, and I’m convinced he was an angel sent to help me on my journey. Besides, he clearly knew what he was doing.
This story is one I will tell until my final day on Earth. The story of a man who took time out of his day to offer his services and expertise to a random stranger, without expectation or any agenda other than wanting to help someone. It is proof of the endless depths of the human heart, and how powerful one’s random act of kindness can be. A reminder of why I am the way I am, because hopefully, my acts of kindness will inspire others to pay it forward.
“John, wherever you are, from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for not only taking the time to help an injured runner, but for making my journey even more memorable with your heartfelt act of kindness. I am so blessed to have crossed paths with you.”