At the end of the Tokyo Olympic Marathon, a Belgian runner stood on the road, facing a camera, for a post-race interview. It is evident that she was very pleased with her performance, with her beaming smile showing that she had given everything for the race that day.
So when the man on the other side of the camera told her she was 28th, she didn’t believe him.
“It’s not possible,” said runner Mieke Gorissen in Dutch.
“It is,” he assured her. As if he needed to convince her, read his time: 2:34:24.
– It is not possible, repeated Gorissen. She then let her coolness deteriorate, as it should, and began to cry.
As Gorissen slowly realized that she was exceeding her own expectations, she turned her heart upside down to share her joy with all of us during this interview. She continued to sob softly and her shoulders shook with relief, surprise, disbelief, euphoria and pride. She repeated it again, more gently this time, It is not possible, but this time she knew it was true, albeit understandably unbelievable. She placed 28th out of 88 runners in the Olympic marathon.
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What do we know about Gorissen? Netherlands Live News tells us that she is a 38-year-old math and physics teacher from Diepenbeek, Belgium. She knits. She reads. Her Instagram account shows pictures of fluffy socks, papers with equations, cats, cattle, a few runs, sunsets and an adorable donkey. Only recent pictures of her running in her country’s gear, with an air of constant determination, reveal that she is an Olympian.
Gorissen started running in his 30s, like many of us, for exercise. When she first started, she casually ran a 10k loop a few times a week. Then in 2018, she asked a running trainer to help her improve her form. With a few tips, she realized that she was good at the sport and had a passion for it. She covered miles, won the Belgian national cross-country championship, and then challenged herself to run the marathon.
The marathon, of course, for so many distance runners is the ultimate test. Like Gorissen, we think, yes 10K is fine, but can I handle 26.2? Gorissen answered this question by running two marathons well enough for his third to be at the 2021 Olympics. (Does this sound familiar to you?) While we runners may not make it to the Olympics or finishing 28th in any race, only 0.5 percent of humans completed a marathon. With that in mind, the most beautiful, rational and accessible line Gorissen said in his post-race interview was: “I was already happy to finish the race.” (Also: “I think I lost a toenail.”)
If there’s ever a time to cry uncontrollably and with joy, it’s at the end of a marathon. And isn’t that how we should all feel after 26.2 miles? Even if we’re not in the top 100, or if we haven’t done any PR, or if we haven’t finished last, shouldn’t we be giving ourselves the opportunity to feel, everyone? less, happy?
As I watched Gorissen after her run, then saw her emotions wash over her, I cried too. I felt a lightness and a satisfaction that I wanted to feel at the end of a race. I know I will never race at the Olympics, but I believe all runners should shine on a day when they run to the best of their ability. Although I completed three marathons, I never crossed the finish line and reacted with pure joy. I wondered if I would ever do it.
Then I realized: I had to let the finish line take over. Many of us marathon runners cry, not tears of happiness, but tears of disappointment at the end. Our bodies are exhausted, and as we stumble from the timing mat to the table with the banana, we fumble with our watch to see our time, analyze our split times, and perhaps determine if we’re hitting our goals. But why?
We forget that the distance itself is an accomplishment no matter how long we have run. It is a great test of will, one of the greatest sporting achievements there is. It’s an item on many people’s bucket lists that never gets crossed out. Plus, completing a marathon means you’ve run not only 26.2 miles of the course, but all the miles before that in preparation for that last moment.
So let’s do like Gorissen. Let us be happy to have finished. Shine as you reflect on the work that went into every kick and swing. Later is when you can think of the data. But in the moments that follow, be there at the finish line and nowhere else. Feel your heart pounding, your legs twitching, the salt on your skin, your sweat-soaked shorts hanging from your beaten body. Give yourself permission to scream, smile, laugh, and cry simultaneously. Because you did. And hey, you never know; you may have finished 28th.
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