For the next nine months, Mark lived at home and worked a desk job in the family business. That spring, he helped coach the track team at his old high school He really enjoyed being around the kids and the running again, even though he was still dependent on a cane in order to walk.
One year after his accident, Mark returned to the University of Northern Iowa to resume his studies. According to Mark, that was a very good decision but a very difficult adjustment. Needing the cane in order to be mobile made this 22-year-old former track star extremely self-conscious, and adjusting to college life as an independent adult in his current condition was an extremely difficult transition for him. It was the transition he wasn’t handling very well until the day he read an article in the university newspaper about a class which was to be offered the following semester called the “Marathon Class.” An informational meeting was being held that week for all interested persons.
The minute he read about it, he knew that this class was just what he needed. He needed a structured mental and physical challenge of this type to help him get his self-confidence back. He just had to get into that class.
He left for the meeting way ahead of its scheduled start time. He wanted to be there before others started arriving so that he wouldn’t feel embarrassed when he walked in with his cane. As he parked in the handicapped parking area nearest to the meeting site, he became more and more frustrated with the situation. What was he doing? How could he expect to run a marathon when he couldn’t even walk 20 feet without a cane? This was absolutely ridiculous! This just wasn’t possible given his limitations.
Suddenly, the irony hit him like a lightning bolt. Here he was doing to himself what he had perceived his doctors and nurses doing to him in the hospital: accept your limitations and learn to live with them. Because he hadn’t accepted it then, he was walking when he should have been in a wheelchair. And if he didn’t accept it now, who is to say that he wouldn’t find a way to do the marathon? He was going! He reached for his cane…and stopped. “Screw it,” he thought. “I’m not walking into a marathon meeting with a cane. If I can’t get there without it, then I don’t belong in the class.”
Staggering 20 feet at a time, Mark inched his way the few hundred feet to the meeting site by balancing himself against the outside of buildings and the walls of the hallways. He barely made it in time to find an empty seat. By the time the meeting started, the room was packed. There were over 80 people there hoping to get into the class, but fewer than half that many available slots. The instructors, Forrest Dolgener and David Whitsett, explained the class requirements: Students would train for and run a full 26.2 mile marathon. You either finished or you didn’t. If you finished, you got an A; if you didn’t, you got an F. Training was provided for both physical and mental components. If you followed it, you would finish. If you didn’t follow it, you wouldn’t. It was that simple. Only those who were serious should stay; once you were in the class you were committed.
Most people stayed, including Mark. Thirty names were chosen from the hat. Mark’s was not one of them After the meeting ended and the room started to clear, Mark stayed behind hoping to talk with the instructors to see if they would reconsider letting him in. He told them briefly what he had been through.
“Can you run at all?” Dave asked him.
“ldquo;Well, not yet,” Mark replied.
“What’s your current level of activity?” questioned Forrest.
“Right now, I can walk about 20 feet without having to stop,” answered Mark.
Dave looked at the young man standing in front of him. He remembered Mark from his year of collegiate cross country, and now knew why he hadn’t been back to team since. If this young man, who wasn’t even supposed to be walking wanted to try a marathon, he sure wasn’t going to tell him no. After consulting with Forrest, Dave told Mark, “Here’s what we’ll do. You go home and think about it overnight. Tomorrow, if you still want to try this, be in my office at 2:00 and we’ll talk more about it. OK?” “OK,” beamed Mark. He didn’t even need to think about it – he’d be there.
It was a few minutes after 2:00 and Dave was starting to wonder if Mark had reconsidered, when he heard a strange sound coming down the hall. Unable to place the step-slap-drag sound, he listened as it slowly approached his office. When it stopped, there stood Mark in his doorway loaded down with what appeared to be files of paperwork.
“I’d started to think maybe you weren’t coming,” Dave teased.
“Couldn’t find a handicapped parking place, so it took me a little longer to get here,” Mark said, smiling.
“What do you have there?” Dave asked, nodding at the stack of papers mark was trying to balance in his free arm.
“Medical records,” Mark replied. “Thought I better bring them in case you had specific questions about my condition.”
As his guest sat down, Dave looked at the huge stack of paperwork Mark had just deposited on his desk in wonder at all this young man must have gone through. Over the next hour, as the details of Mark’s story unfolded, Dave’s respect and admiration for Mark’s determination deepened. While he had concerns about how Mark would hold up under the physically demanding training, he certainly wasn’t going to deny Mark the change to try after all he’d come through to get to this point.
Through the course of their conversation, it became clear to Dave how important it was to Mark that he be measured by as many of the same criteria as possible as were expected of the rest of the class. Mark needed to have an A or F goal just like the rest of the students, although an entire marathon in just one semester of training was clearly unrealistic for Mark given his present level of activity. As a way to test the waters Dave said, “Well, you know we’re not going to let you off easy.”
“Good! I don’t want you to…that’s why I’m here,” Mark answered with a sense of relief. He was so tired of everyone trying to impose their negative limitations on him, that being challenged is exactly what he needed and hoped he would get from Dave and Forrest.
“I’ve thought about this, and I’ll you in the class, but we have to decide on what would be a reasonable goal. If you’re not able to run, can you walk?” Dave said.
“Well, yea, I’ve walked two miles, but with lots of stops to rest,” Mark replied.
After some discussion about realistic but challenging goals and possible alternative training methods, the two agreed that Mark’s goal would be to walk a 10K (6.2 miles). He would train with the rest of the class, and while they would run, he would walk. Dave recalls:
So, we sent Mark home with the same pre-training instructions s all the other students: by the time the semester began in mid-January they had to be able to jog (or, in his case, walk) for 30 minutes without stopping in order to be ready to begin the formal training.
On the first day of class we met in the UNI-Dome (the University’s indoor stadium), and they all did it…including Mark. A leg brace had replaced the cane, and he was very unsteady. He dragged his right leg with every step and was very slow, but he did it.
From then on, every Saturday when we took the class out for their long run Mark was there and he walked over the same course that everybody else ran. We adjusted his distance commensurate with his goal, but he was on the road for at least as long (usually longer) as the rest of the class.