Ben Comen holds the record as the slowest cross-country runner in the United States of America. On a typical 3.1 mile race, he takes over 40 minutes to complete the race. The best runners are easily under 20 minutes. There is a catch. Ben Comen is not a normal runner.
Born with cerebral palsy, Ben has limited control of his arms and stiffness in his legs. It makes running a strenuous task. When he sleeps, he wears a cumbersome leg brace to keep his leg functioning properly.
Yes, Ben is different. And we are good at labeling people who are different. Perhaps we could learn from them. Maybe even be inspired. While Ben has cerebral palsy, the disease does not affect his intellect—he gets A’s and B’s in school—but it does seize his muscles and contort his body, and gives him the equilibrium of a drunk on New Year’s Eve. None of these inconveniences seems to dissuade Ben, however. Why? Because Ben loves to run.
“I’m more relaxed when I run,” is the way Ben explains it. “When I run, nothing bothers me much.”
Which is not a big deal until you listen to his mother Joan. “He loves to run; but at first we didn’t think he would ever walk.”
So. Ben Comen has been running all his life. Not from something, but towards something.
Always with a dream, even as a young boy, Ben wanted to be a member of a sports team. There were schools that said yes, but with unambiguous conditions. But here’s the deal: Ben wasn’t satisfied sitting on a bench or being a water boy. Ben wanted to run. Ben wanted to compete. And Ben’s life changed when high school cross-country coach—at TL Hanna—Chuck Parker said, “Yes. Bring him on!”
Ben put in his hard work. Waking up before dawn on most days, he would go for his own training, jogging around the community of Anderson, South Carolina. Some days, his siblings-including twin Alex-would join in. But mostly he trained on his own.
At each race the starting gun sounds. The race begins. And the “pack pulls farther and farther ahead while Ben falls farther and farther behind. He slips on the wet grass and falls forward (it’s a good race if he only falls once).” Often when he falls, it hurts. He is sore and bloodied. But he gets back up and keeps running. Why? Ben won’t quit. Even when the pack is out of sight and Ben is running alone.
“It’s sometimes hard to keep going when I’m all by myself.” Ben admits.
“Every time he falls my heart stops,” his Mom says. “And then he gets back up.”
“My goal is to cross the finish line no matter what. If I’m having a bad race I still keep going,” Ben says. Yes, Ben is an inspiration. Not because he wins. But because he hasn’t quit, not once. Through rain, wind or welt, he always crosses the finish line.
Simon Senek writes, “But this is not a story of ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ This is not a story of ‘when you fall down, pick yourself up.’ Those are great lessons to learn, but we don’t need Ben to teach us those lessons. Ben’s lesson is deeper.”
You see, something amazing happens after about 25 minutes. When everybody else is done with their race, everyone comes back to run with Ben. Ben is the only runner who, when he falls, someone else will help pick him up. Ben is the only runner who, when he finishes, has a hundred people running behind him. Why? Because he’s not there to beat anyone but himself.
And it’s some sight when he crosses the finish line. “Ben clunking his way home, shepherded by all those kids, while the cheerleaders screech and parents try to holler encouragement, only to find nothing coming out of their voice boxes. The other day Ben was coming in with his huge army, Ben’s Friends, his face stoplight red and tortured, that laborious gait eating up the earth inch by inch, when he fell not 10 yards from the line. There was a gasp from the parents and a second of silence from the kids. But then Ben went through the 15-second process of getting his bloody knees under him, his balance back and his forward motion going again–and he finished. From the roar you’d have thought he just won Boston. ‘Words can’t describe that moment,’ says his mom. ‘I saw grown men just stand there and cry.'”
Why do people hang around to watch the slowest high school cross-country runner in America? Why do they want to see a kid finish the 3.1 miles in 51 minutes when the winner did it in 16? Why do they nearly break their wrists applauding a junior who falls flat on his face almost every race? Why do they hug a teenager who could be beaten by any other kid running backward? Why do all of his teammates go back out on the course and run the last 10 minutes of every race with him? Why do other teams do it too? Because Ben Comen never quits, “Look at that funny looking, funny walking kid (people would say). Now they can say all they want. I’m still going to do what I’m going to do.”
I love Ben’s story. Our invitation to make space for choices that heal, and an affirmation of what really matters: we all make a difference, one choice at a time.
A coach who invited this kid become part of the “team”.
A group of boys that made Ben feel like a member of the “team”.
A mom and dad who allowed their child to be “normal” even in the face of adversity.
A community who embraced someone who was clearly “different”.
A young boy who only wanted to finish the race.
My friend Mary Anne Radmacher’s reminder, “Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.”
In Ben’s words, “Anybody can find something they can do—and do well. I like to show people you can either stop trying, or you can pick yourself up and keep going. It is just more fun to keep going.”
Last night enjoyed the power of storytelling. Ira Glass in Seattle. “We live in a world where joy and empathy and pleasure are all around us, there for the noticing,” he reminded us.
And today talking with the Mallard family on the pond. Their spirit of resilience does my heart good.
Quote for our week… “Ben can get to you that way. This is a kid who builds wheelchair ramps for Easter Seals, spends nights helping at an assisted-living home, mans a drill for Habitat for Humanity, devotes hours to holding the hand of a disabled neighbor, Miss Jessie, and plans to run a marathon and become a doctor. Boy, the youth of today, huh?” Rick Reilly
Today’s Photo Credit: “Terry, Sunset this week, viewing from Edmonds, WA, looking over at the peninsula where you live. Doesn’t get any better.” Rich Hurst… Thank you Rich… Thank you to all, keep sending your photos… send to terryhershey.com
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Letters that do my heart good…
–Dear Mr. Hershey, We all very much enjoyed and appreciated your seminar at St. Gall church in Gardnerville. You are an uniquely inspiring preacher/teacher, as was my pastor and friend Jeff Cotter… Fuller Seminary in common may be part of the secret. Jeff and Patti Cotter and Vern Madsen and I have so many threads and connections that cross over years, it is not surprising that, together, we connected with you yesterday. We look forward to following your daily and weekly messages, and sharing your books. Thank you1. Muffy
–Good morning Terry! I can’t imagine starting my day without you and you’re right we all have a song mine is Blessings by Laura Story and counting you among my Blessings. Mary Anne, Peace Be With You, Mare
–Good Morning Terry, Although I do not have a beautiful photo to share, I do have a heartfelt memory which your today’s “A Safe Place to Land” meditation brought to mind. I was living in Williamsburg, VA and a member of a prolific book club! One of the most memorable books we read and reviewed was a historical novel, “A Thread of Grace” by Mary Doria Russell. Her story takes place in a small town, Sant’Andrea, Italy and is a heartwarming story yet difficult one of ‘being thy brother’s keeper’ in the hiding and protection of the German Jews. It is one of those books which left a great impression on me… thankfully, Italy was certainly ‘ a safe place to land’ for many Jews. Thank you for sharing your daily meditations, I look forward to them each morning. Blessings, Brooks
–Dear Terry, Your words are always just perfect for me! I told my children and then my grandchicks that I love them more than peanut butter and Winnie the Pooh. At 81, I have shown them continual reasons why I love that wondrous bear of little brain. Thanks for the reminder. Love, Sandy
POEMS AND PRAYERS
This is my real world, where life proceeds at its own healthy pace, where I can revel in the luxury of paying more attention to sunrise and sunset than to clock time. –Kathleen Norris
Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.
(The Parent’s Tao Te Ching)
If ever there was a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house
and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.