Marathon running is not always the most dignified of sports (I’ll spare you the details of anti-chafing cream or the dreaded runners’ trots) so it’s ironic that it’s that word, dignity, which got me thinking about some parallels between the marathon and the work of Five Talents. I’ve just got back from running the Boston Marathon, and when you’re running that far there’s plenty of time for random musings, so humour me with this chain of thought.
First, dignity in the face of disability. There were 43 wheelchair users, 45 mobility impaired and 39 visually impaired runners on the start-line in Boston. I saw several blind runners with guides on the course as well as Rick Hoyt of “Team Hoyt.” Rick Hoyt was born in 1962 and diagnosed as a spastic quadriplegic with cerebral palsy. In 1977, his father pushed him in a wheelchair over a 5-mile sponsored run. Rick loved it, telling his dad (he can move his head to select letters from the alphabet to communicate) that he didn’t feel disabled when they were running. Since 1977, “Team Hoyt” has competed in 1,116 races including 255 triathlons and 72 marathons. Equally moving was seeing Patrick Downes and Adrianne Haslet, single and double amputees respectively who had lost limbs in the 2013 Boston bombings and returned this year determined to run with prostheses.
They reminded me of the slogan I’ve often seen in Kenya: ‘Disability is not inability.’ It certainly is not, as all of these runners proved. Their dignity and perseverance also reminded me of some of the Five Talents members we’ve seen facing their challenges with equal grit; some of you have met Sebastian, the widowed cobbler in Embu who, thanks to our programme, makes and sells shoes in the market in Embu. He suffered polio as a child and can’t walk but that hasn’t stopped him setting up a small business to support his 4 children. When we last met him, he was saving to buy a wheelchair. Whether the result of disease, accident or terrorism, the strength, spirit and dignity that every Rick, Patrick, Adrianne or Sebastian brings is genuinely humbling.
Secondly, the role of women. The 2016 Boston Marathon was a historic anniversary for women. The Boston Marathon was first run in 1897. In 1915, the first women applied to take part and were refused. In 1966, Bobbi Gibb (pictured) applied and was told women are physiologically incapable of running 26.2m. As she regularly ran further in training, she showed up in her brother's shorts and a big hoodie and ran the course anyway. The men around her, when they realised she was a she, told her she had as much right as them to run and cheered her on and she finished the course ahead of two-thirds of them, but she was denied an official finish time or place and only got her medal 30 years later. She broke the ground, though, and in 1972 women were officially accepted into the race. This year, 50 years after Bobbi's 'illegal' run, almost half of the runners were women. Of course, there is still a lot worse discrimination against women; I think of the young women in our savings groups who have been through FGM and early forced marriage, the women globally who aren’t allowed to vote, go to school, own property or open a bank account. A lot has changed over the last 50 years but we need to keep campaigning for much more change over the next 50.
Thirdly, generosity and welcome to strangers. Supporters lining the streets were giving out water, ice, slices of orange and jelly babies, but even more welcome was their incredible cheering. I often find marathons moving. Partly it’s the sight of people pushing to their limits after months of training to raise funds for causes close to their hearts that gets me - I’m sure you’ve seen runners in T-shirts saying ‘Running to raise funds for cancer research, in memory of mum’ and similar. But it’s also the way complete strangers call your name and urge you on and tell you how well you’re doing and that you can keep going - the Bostonian phrase I heard again and again was ‘You’ve got this’ and the people shouting it really meant it (though I liked the placards some were waving saying ‘If Trump can run, so can you’ and ‘Run like Ted Cruz is behind you’ nearly as much!).
After I’d crossed the finishing line and left the runners’ enclosure, I collapsed on the nearest bit of pavement to recover for a few minutes. I soon began shivering (not uncommon after a hard race) but the half mile walk back to our hotel, a shower, and some dry clothes seemed too far to manage straight away. A lady standing nearby waiting for her runner to emerge came over and wrapped her enormous scarf round me and told me to keep it.
These are people you’ve never met and won’t ever meet again, people who might cut you up at a traffic light or people you’d push past on the tube/subway on an ordinary day - and yet on marathon day everyone seems to be in a good mood, united behind one goal and ready to urge and support everyone else. There aren’t many occasions in our fast-paced lives when we take time to encourage others, welcome strangers wholeheartedly, do simple acts of kindness or bond over a shared human experience. I’m not going to romanticise our savings groups - of course, our members are as busy (if not busier) and as human as the rest of us - but they perhaps do have more of the ‘marathon spirit’ in their everyday lives than us. The good humour, community solidarity and generosity of heart and deed I felt in Boston did remind me of several Trust Groups meetings and members I’ve visited, as did the warm welcome and hospitality to strangers. It’s not something I witness very often in London.