Marathon Miles: Run with Valor
By Alexis Mercer
He was 98 years old. We knew it was coming. But standing looking at the photos of his life at the funeral, it wasn’t any easier than if it had been a complete surprise. That’s the difficulty in loving so fully - the pain is deep regardless of the circumstances of death.
My attention was focused on the one photo of my Grandpa, Donald S. MacKenzie, standing by the Marine Corps War Memorial - the six men pushing up the American Flag on Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in WWII. The picture was when he had visited this memorial some years back. But my Grandpa, a Marine Corps Veteran, was on Iwo Jima itself defending his country when the actions in this memorial had taken place.
Memories of the man were flooding through my head as I read the quote on the base of the statue. “Uncommon Valor Was A Common Virtue.” How undeniably true of this man, who spent his entire life displaying valor in one form or another.
I tucked this phrase away in my heart and waited to sort through what it meant to me until after the service.
As the weeks passed on, I was running farther and more often - contemplating a marathon, but not sure of the challenge. It was on these days when I needed to pass time that I would think most often of my Grandpa’s life.
My sister and I didn’t hear many stories of the war growing up. My mom told us he didn’t like to talk about it. If we were lucky enough to get him talking of those memories, it was about the vast shipment of pineapples they came across and got to enjoy on the ship The Maryland on way home from Hawaii after the war ended. Or the drudgery of potato peeling duty on the ship (this was usually with a smile as I was peeling potatoes for dinner). Or sometimes even the joy he got from helping defend his country with his HAM radio skills.
But most of what I knew of my Grandpa was what was demonstrated in his every day actions. The immense love he had for his wife - my Grandma. And the way he devoted himself completely to being a family man; a dad who actively participated in the responsibilities of raising children.
How he worked 42 years for Detroit Edison. A rarity even then to work for one company his whole career. His support of my Grandmother to not only work outside the home, but to earn a master’s degree and pursue her passions in life.
I watched him tenderly care for his wife as she suffered through cancer. And I watched the way he survived burying the love of his life when she passed.
As he got older, I was able to hear more stories about his adolescence. Surviving the Depression. Traveling with his brother and cousin across the country in a 1931 Ford Coupe, the first car he ever owned. Adventures of grand proportion with friends and family whose company he treasured. He always spoke with great respect for everyone he knew.
My miles began to accumulate and I committed to running a marathon. My initial hope was to run the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. I even had access to a charity entry. The the date interfered with my coaching responsibilities, and I knew my Grandpa would never shy away from responsibilities, so instead I committed to the Grand Rapids Marathon to be able to do both.
One important part of marathon training is beating your mind at its own game. Many times in a long run, the going gets tough. It can happen repeatedly, cycling through the tough and the easy. One way to help pushing through these difficult cycles is to have a mantra: a go-to phrase. It’s something I teach my own cross country runners, even in a 5K race. It was time to heed my own advice and devise a mantra.
I’ve used mantras before, but this was a new challenge: a larger, longer, more demanding challenge. It was worthy of a new mantra.
In thinking of a phrase that would suit the challenge is when my mind kept coming back to my Grandpa and the photograph at his funeral. “Uncommon Valor Was A Common Virtue.” While I sorted through the pain of losing him and the love I have for him, I knew I needed to remind myself of his life and his valor.
I had already come to the conclusion that it wasn’t just his being a veteran of war that defined his valor: it was instead the way in which he carried himself each day of his life.
What better way to honor his life and the lasting impact he has on me than choosing a mantra I feel represents how he would want me to pursue this goal of mine?
And so began “Run With Valor”.
The mantra quickly grew on me. I found myself thinking of it not only on the uphill battles with my mind while I run, but also in my daily proceedings. I began to love it so much that I found an online store that would print my mantra on a bracelet I could wear while I run to provide a physical reminder in case my mind wanted to ignore the mental reminder. It also has become my Instagram hashtag I use with every running post.
I will never pretend to have the valor of the men and women who so courageously lay their lives on the line for our country. My goal is not to compare my running to that act of bravery. Instead, I hope that I can honor my Grandfather’s life and his lasting legacy by thinking of this mantra that I believe represents how he would want me to pursue my goal - and how he would want me to live each day of my life.