“’Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.”
– Alfred, Lord Tennyson (from: The Charge of the Light Brigade)
Since I first encountered (and was subsequently forced to memorize) this poem in seventh-grade English class, it has been one of my favorites. It felt weirdly relatable, like this nineteenth-century British poet-Baron was reaching through time and writing to me. Not that I have ever been to battle, or experienced anything close to a war zone –I can’t begin to imagine the kind of courage soldiers require. But something about the rhythm, the recklessness, even the gravity of the poem reminds me of racing.
It’s a clichéd metaphor, I know. Combat is the ultimate sports parallel. This poem, in particular, has supplied the battle cry before the big game in locker rooms the world over (especially since the release of a certain Sandra Bollock movie). But I think it applies to our sport especially well.
To be a runner requires a masochistic mentality. You have to look forward to weathering adversity. You have to be prepared to hurt. You have to make peace with the fact that once the starting gun fires, there is no going back. Do and die, no questions asked.
Over the course of the past six weeks, Tennyson’s words have lodged themselves front and center in my brain like a stubborn commercial jingle. Why?
In a few days, I will line up for my debut marathon.
The marathon is (arguably) no longer the most “extreme” running challenge, but it is the most storied. If the ancient Greeks are to be believed, Phidippedes, the first ever marathoner, collapsed upon finishing and died. That’s some serious stuff. The marathon finish chute is a survivor’s club.
What I’m hoping to gain from the experience is close to what Tennyson captured in his famous poem: the wild, unthinking charge, (wo)man against faceless peril with nigh a second thought for physical risk, driven by courage sweetened with the promise of eternal glory. In short, I want to feel like a motherfucking badass.
And I’ll be honest: I am terrified. I am also ecstatic.
So I’m going to toe the start line in L.A. with these words in mind. All 202 women and 168 men in the race are charging toward the same goal: the valley of Death is 26.2 miles long, and we intend to cross it. What to say in the face of such a daunting task? What to think? Really, there’s only one response: Forward!