Doing the Next Right Thing
By Aaron Rich
Right on Hereford, left on Boylston…
The navigational directions are simple. Right on Hereford, left on Boylston. The directions for life are just as simple. Do the next right thing. Ah, but the work required in order to follow these directions, that’s the rub.
In the marathon, I can only get to that right and left turn by putting in the work. Early mornings, late nights, sore muscles, sore tempers, sacrifices from my family, the list goes on. So I run, simple… One foot in front of the other until my watch beeps 5, 10, 20 miles. I watch what I eat, how much I sleep and listen to my body. I try my best to be present for my family when I am exhausted from the toll of marathon training.
In life, I can only be prepared to do the next right thing by putting in the work. I often don’t mind my tongue, sharing my view instead of listening, casting judgment instead of giving grace. So I rage, fall down, accept my defeat, and humbly learn from each failure. Sometimes it takes repeated failures, but inevitably, I am humbled. Through failure, I grow, learn to listen, learn to give grace, learning to be a better human. Each time I grow, I am better equipped to do the next right thing when that moment of choice comes calling.
I got to run the Boston Marathon because of the work I put into doing the next right thing. I’ve been a runner most of my life, but my sober running journey is only 6 years old. I have put in the work and am a better husband, father, person, and runner than I was 6 years ago. I got to use the Boston Marathon to accomplish a dream from high school because I put in the training for the race.
Fresh out of college, I was a 71-minute half-marathoner. A 2:40 marathon was in the bag for me; no big deal. I was in the deadly, relentless grasp of addiction at that point in my life, but I didn’t know it. In my first marathon, I ran 3 hours and 41 minutes. There wasn’t another one for more than a decade. Addiction won, and my passion and my dream were forgotten.
When the darkness seems to be at its most impenetrable, that’s where God is. I got sober in 2015, and then I got on the path of learning how to be a good human. Freshly sober, I tried my hand at another marathon. My legs gave out at 22 miles, and 3 hours and 18 minutes after I started, I crossed the finish line. I was elated that I finished, but I knew I was better than that.
I got another opportunity at the marathon through Herren Project for the 50th NYC marathon in 2021. I was still intimidated and humbled by my past experiences at a distance, but I was also excited to give it a go. I ran 3 hours and 8 minutes in New York, a big personal best, and 2 minutes under Boston, qualifying for my age group.
I put my name in, even though most years, my time wouldn’t be fast enough. To my surprise, all entrants were accepted this year. I allowed my dream to sneak back into my mind. I get to run the Boston Marathon, but wouldn’t it be incredible if I could break 3 hours on that iconic and challenging course.
I put in the work, but I wasn’t selfish. I tried my hardest to balance running with being present and available to my family. I wasn’t perfect, but I did my best. I continued to put in the work to follow simple directions. When I left home for Boston, I felt prepared, supported, and loved. All the rest was in God’s care.
Boston is electric on marathon weekend. I explored Cambridge, and the waterfront, soaking in as much of Boston as possible. I was alone and missed my family, but I gave myself permission to enjoy this weekend that my hard work had earned me. I sat at the Herren Project group party and was both sad and happy. I was defeated and inspired. Sad because everyone there had loved ones with them. Happy because I knew this was the way it needed to be for our family. Defeated, well, because that’s my pattern; if I scuttle my own chances at success, then I don’t have to worry about falling short. Inspired because my Herren teammates are awe-inducing and beyond my ability to do justice with mere words. $250,000+ raised by them to help support those in recovery and their families.
As I ate dinner that night, alone in the spartan confines of my Airbnb, I still hadn’t decided what I was going to do with the opportunity that was rapidly approaching the next morning. I was asked throughout the weekend about my goals, and I demurred. I offered up that I wanted to enjoy the experience and soak in the moments of just being there.
I had put in the work, and my body was ready for me to push my limits, but I still had my mind wrapped up tight in the deadly coils of fear and doubt. By saying I wanted to “enjoy the moment,” I was really saying, “I am afraid to fail.”
I was calm and relaxed as the sun rose on Patriot’s Day in Boston. I arrived at the athlete’s village and attempted to keep warm. God shows up in the strangest ways sometimes, and my encounter with my friend Jamil certainly ranks right up there. I was desperately seeking out a short porta-potty line when I practically ran right into him. He asked me if I was going to go for it today (sub-3), and I blurted out the answer without thinking. Yes, I was going to put myself out there.
I found the urinal and the start line; it was time to put in the work. To do the next right thing. To take that right-hand turn and that left-hand turn with a chance at achieving a resurgent dream from the past. The gun cracked, and a sea of humanity surged forth, leaving Hopkinton for the long road to Boston.
And it was glorious. Bodies were moving in unison toward the excitement of uncertainty. And the crowds were out of this world. Ashland, Framingham, Natick, the scream tunnel in Wellesley, the Newton hills, Brookline, and finally, Boston itself. I felt great running through the early miles and passed halfway with time to spare in order to break 3 hours.
Then came the Newton hills. Push too much, and I will be walking it in. Go too easy and regret what could have been. I met a guy who talked to me about my Herren singlet and shared that he was 10 years sober. He began charging up the hills. I took that as a sign and followed him.
I crested the final climb, still on pace, and raced down the hills, quads, and hamstrings screaming, pleading to stop. I pressed on, past the famous Citgo sign, as my back began to spasm, pulling my head back with wrenching pain. But I was doing the thing. I had gotten there.
Right onto Hereford, vision blurring, people urging me on.
Left onto Boylston.
The finish is in sight, but the night is darkest at dawn. My entire body is seizing up. My eyes are closed. I just want to lay down. The line approaches, I throw up my hands, thanking God, and it’s done. 2:58:43. I broke 3 hours for a marathon at Boston. I refused to give up on myself and achieved a goal I thought was out of reach. Of course, it’s just a foot race. Meaningless, if the lesson isn’t carried forth to that other thing I’ve got going on, life. Doing the next right thing.
Staggering, with legs that barely function, medals, space blankets, photos, a feed bag.
After the blissful chaos of the finishing chute, I found myself at the edge of Boston Common. I found a bench near the pond and took a seat, carefully stretching out sore muscles. I called my dad. I called my wife. I had a happy cry. I missed my family. I took a walk. I saw Paul Revere’s house. I spent some time in the King’s Chapel Burial Ground. I had a coffee. I watched a man juggle a large wrench, a plunger, and a traffic cone, while balanced on a large ball. I took a pee behind a dumpster because, well, that’s what runners do.
I thanked God for the opportunity at a new life, to be able to run while carrying a message of hope, to be able to learn from my mistakes and to do the next right thing.
That was my Boston Marathon experience.
Thanks for letting me share.
If you or a loved one needs help for a drug or alcohol addiction, contact Herren Project to take the first step. Recovery is possible.