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An Essay by Kevin Coupe

There’s nothing like the 21st mile of a marathon to get you thinking about mortality.

In my case, during the 29th annual Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC, last weekend. I had been thinking about mortality anyway, both professionally and personally, but there was something about going over the 14th Street Bridge on creaky knees that focused my attention.

There had been numerous warning signs popping up in my life that had suggested to me that this was a subject worth considering…

I’d been talking to a retailer friend of mine, a successful entrepreneur who runs a family-owned supermarket, who told me that despite the fact that the company was profitable and always had been debt-free, the banks were unwilling to lend him money to expand. Wal-Mart was on the horizon, convincing the banks that any loan to the competition was foolish. So, my friend was considering his options, wonder whether a decades-old business simply wasn’t viable anymore. It was like facing professional mortality at too young an age.

At the same time, I was facing my 50th birthday. It’d been a pretty good year, with new experiences (like learning to drive a race car) and fresh challenges (training for my second marathon, and my first since knee surgery). But on the other hand, someone had pointed out to me that unless I defied the actuarial tables, it was unlikely that I’d see my 10-year-old daughter live to be my age…a sobering thought, at best.

And, my wife and I had made plans to go to London to see my favorite actor, Richard Dreyfuss, do the West End version of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers”… only to have our plans dashed when Dreyfuss had to drop out of the production. At 56, his knees and back were simply not up to the rigors of a Broadway-style musical…and since I’d thought of him as a contemporary since “Jaws,” “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” and “The Goodbye Girl” (and related to him since he also was short, bearded, wore glasses and was occasionally weight challenged), this also was depressing news. Again, professional mortality at too young an age.

So there I was, running my 26.2 miles, hoping that’d I’d survive and at least equal my time from three years before. I knew that I’d write a column about the experience, and was mentally prepared. It would be a column about individual toughness…about the “loneliness of the long distance runner”…about how in any sort of challenging situation, one has to be independent and resolute, because in the current environment, there is very little you can count on.

But I was unprepared for what I experienced.

There were more than 20,000 runners in the Marine Corps Marathon, and I was one of the few who ran alone. In this marathon, and I suspect in others, the feeling of community support is palpable.

It begins at the starting line, as you look at the shirts and faces of the runners. So many of them are there not just for the physical challenge, but to run in the memory of a deceased serviceman or relative, to raise money for one cause or another, to heighten attention about some issue of importance to them. They are together, creating community and providing support and a kind of contagious enthusiasm.

It continues as you run, mile after mile, as spectators you’ve never met cheer you on, shouting words of encouragement, urging you on to the next water stop, the next mile marker. Some of them are Marines, who have their own unique form of encouragement, and many of them are just observers and nice people who want to participate in the event.

Some of this I remembered from three years before, but that marathon was run just weeks after 9/11, and the raw emotions of those weeks dominated the landscape, just as the image of a devastated Pentagon seen from the race course almost obscures all else from memory.

What really was remarkable this time was the way in which cell phone technology was utilized by runners to alert their support groups along the way if they needed water, or energy bars, or just a hug and a quick massage because the calf muscles were starting to tighten. I heard this all around me, listening as people talked to their loved ones, gave them updates, and elicited encouragement.

It was a heightened sense of real community. Even running alone, without a cell phone, I felt it.

And it changed my mind about this column.

Sure, to survive in the modern business climate one needs to be personally tough. And an air of individuality certainly can help one get through the tough times, making it possible to stand out from the crowd. That can help us both as people who work in companies, and as companies looking for differential advantages.

It seems to me, though, that the necessity of creating community – especially within the retail environment – too often is undervalued. Sure, there are plenty of stores that call their employees “associates” or “team members,” but those often are shallow references with little resonance in the employees’ lives.

There is a kind of sweeping power that can come from a sense of connection. It can happen in a store, as people feel a common linkage to mutual goals and strategies. And it can happen in a grueling 26.2-mile race, in which the kinship of fellow runners and the fervor of the crowds can carry one past bad knees, a sore back and even a shaky resolve.

Sure, in a marathon there is a finish line, and even the slowest of us only need six hours to run it. In life, the finish line hopefully is out of sight (unless you’re turning 50 and feeling sorry for yourself), and the obstacles both tangible and intangible.

But as the saying goes, life is a marathon, not a sprint. I used to think that just was a cliché…but no longer. It’s just symbolic of something a lot bigger than I had expected.
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