In 1928, an infamous, peculiar C.J. Pyle staged one of the most unlikely sporting events of all time. For months, as entertainingly detailed by author Geoff Williams, he had promised all that would listen that the annual event would be unrivaled in the annals of sports. Runners from across the globe came to Southern California. Some were renowned athletes; others looked nothing like a runner at all. By the time they approached the starting line, 199 of the most diverse group of athletes maybe ever assembled set their sights on running across America. Dubbed the Bunion Derby by the journalists that would cover it, from the beginning it was clear that this would be no ordinary race. As Pyle juggled a traveling circus and a cross country run, the athletes endured countless injuries, scorching heat and bone-chilling cold, death threats, and wayward drivers in their pursuit of immortality.
84 days and 3,421.5 miles later, 55 runners would enter Madison Square Garden for the last twenty miles of the race. For weeks, Pyle had built up the finale of this incredible race, and had rented the arena to accommodate the masses of people who would come to see these athletes finish. Everyone braced for the crowds. They never came. Although the sidewalks were full of people on the way to the Garden, few people shelled out the $1.65 required to get in. Many of those that did left disappointed. For as remarkable of a feat that the journey was, the final laps were anything but a competition. The winner had long ago been crowned. And for most, it was a lurch to the finish as their bodies had endured almost three brutal months on the road with not a single day off. It was anything but graceful, certainly nothing like the spectacle that had been advertised.
Almost ninety years later, little has changed. Sporting events featuring the fastest, most powerful athletes routinely draw crowds upwards of a 100,000 people. Even when it comes to running, can you name a world record holder for the 100 meter dash? Many might know it is Usain Bolt (9.58 seconds). But quick, name the marathon world record holder (answer: Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto – 2 hours, 2 minutes, 52 seconds). I suspect few know this (including myself until I looked it up). Now, finally, name the world record holder for 100 miles. Answer (Oleg Kharitonov from Russia – barely over 11 hours, 28 minutes). I suspect that I along with 99.9 percent had no clue.
Regardless of how you compare the sanity of each of these events, it seems obvious to acknowledge that we as a people are generally more enthralled and interested in the spectacular and the instantaneous than the enduring. In some ways, it makes sense. Like 90 year ago, our attention wanes rather quickly if we are not entertained by the sensational and the speedy, and thus athletes with freakish abilities are usually the ones rewarded with huge sums of money.
Yet, moving beyond the comparison of sport, something seems amiss with this reality. As the marathon of life progresses, most of us quickly realize that the prizes we desire are granted not to the fleetest, but to the ones who can endure. Whether it is seeing our kids graduate college or looking forward to that first grandchild, or working towards a long sought after promotion, the victors in real life are so often those that find ways to persist through days, week, and years of challenge.
But I wonder. Do we really find ways to reward, and recognize, feats of these kinds in the way we do when a winning touchdown is scored? Whether it is toll booth operator retiring after 39 years on the job or the hospice worker who takes care of the dying for two decades, I wonder if we as a society go to great lengths to acknowledge the accomplishment for what it is. Sure, the honoree might not come with an Odell Beckham-like highlight reel. But in taking away nothing from this remarkable athlete, I can’t help but think that 50+ years of marriage might be one of the events we should celebrate most.
A few months ago, my Grandma and Grandpa Schroeder were over for our twins 11th birthday. Grandma had just turned 85. Grandpa is not far behind. They will have been married for 65 years on October 11, and their life together started in the small town in Foley, Alabama, where my father was born barely ten months later while Grandpa was in the navy during the Korean War. I have never seen a headline about their accomplishments, their ideas, or any “amazing spectacles” except for a small blurb a few times on their anniversaries. But as my wife and I are a few months past our 17th anniversary, I love and admire them so much for many things—not the least of which is their enduring commitment to each other. I love that my kids know them in this way, and I hope someday my kids really understand what a beautiful, remarkable gift this is. Like anyone who reaches a similar milestone, their road hasn’t been without its trials. But in the long run, they are set to finish the race. How wonderful it has been to be a spectator of this remarkable feat! We love you Grandpa and Grandma Schroeder. Congratulations on six and a half decades of marriage.