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Editor's weekly: St. Louis marathon: character trumps natural talent

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 11, 2010 - Congratulations to Karl Gilpin and Julie Lossos, winners of Sunday’s Go! St. Louis marathon.

Gilpin was cruising downhill on Forest Park Parkway about 23 miles into his race as I was laboring uphill on the other side of the street, about 9 miles into the half marathon. That means Gilpin, who finished in 2:25.41 was running more than twice as fast as I was, though I swear he looked only half as weary.

No matter. The sun was shining, and about 17,000 runners and walkers shared an experience that is both humbling and inspiring. It was a fine day for all those who took part.

Pounding the pavement together brings out some truths about ourselves and our city. First, St. Louis is not flat. You may think so when you’re driving, but actually its topography rises and falls relentlessly from east to west – up to 17th Street, then down; up again to Jefferson; and really up to just west of Grand.

Runners who surmounted these quite-sizeable hills – and surmounted them a second time heading back east to the finish – will never again think of a trip downtown in only two dimensions.

Second, at least back in the pack where I hang out, you can’t tell by looking who’s likely to finish faster or be treated like a star. The factors you can’t see -- training, patience and courage – seem to matter more than the physiques before your eyes. In other words, character trumps natural talent.

Take Kevin, a chunky, 30-something guy I do not know whose persistence inspired me more than Gilpin’s speed.

Lining up for the race, Kevin stood out in a white T-shirt hand lettered "26.2." He crossed the start line and set a steady pace that looked slow, yet I seldom managed to catch up. Still, I knew Kevin was just ahead because spectators called out encouragement by name, which was printed on his race bib. “Looking good, Kevin,” they shouted. “Keep it up.”

When the half marathon course turned east, Kevin continued west with the full marathon runners. I finished my race, drove home and checked the results. Kevin was still running. He eventually finished in 6:08.30 – an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Personal goals

Most runners enter the St. Louis race not because they think they might win but to reach goals they have set for themselves. Race day is the moment of truth. To run your best takes ambition and dedication as well as judgment and a firm grasp of reality. Aim too high, train too hard or go out too fast and you’ll pay the price with injuries and a slower time. Aim too low, train too little or go out too slow and you’ll fail to reach the potential you’re capable of achieving.

While Kevin’s pace and training may not match Gilpin’s, Kevin's effort – and the efforts of all who ran – was in some respects just as personally challenging.

Celebrating our will to tackle challenges is the spirit of the St. Louis race. Unlike Boston, Chicago and New York, where world-class competitors occupy the spotlight, the focus here is on common achievements. Over 10 years, the event has thrived.

What a contrast Sunday’s crowded streets and pleasant temperatures were to my first St. Louis race seven years ago. Then, rain and sleet literally dampened the enthusiasm of a small field. Running the marathon at a plodder’s pace, I seldom saw spectators – and sometimes couldn’t even spot another runner.

St. Louisans have demonstrated two important things since then: All sorts of people have what it takes to set an ambitious goal and reach it. And while world-class competition is a thrill to watch, the collective accomplishment of ordinary people is awesome to experience.

Sunday, the cavalcade of runners and walkers stretched for blocks. It made for an inspiring race and an inspiring example for our region.