Last April I ran the Music City Half-Marathon with my fifteen-year-old son. I ran most of it, anyway. Between Mile Marker 10 and Mile Marker 11 I decided I’d had as much fun as I could stand and sent my son on ahead while I walked a little, trotted a little, walked some more.
I was walking, and not very briskly, near the foot of Capitol Hill when I felt a hand on my shoulder. “You can do this,” said a woman’s voice. “Don’t walk. Run.” I looked to see who my encourager was, but I didn’t recognize her as she passed. I could see that she was a few years older than I. My first thought was, “If this woman can keep running after eleven miles, I can too.” My second thought was, “I’ve got nothing to prove here. She can run if she wants, and good on her. I’m tired of running.” My third thought was, “Wait, is she wearing a beauty pageant sash?”
A white satin sash ran across the woman’s torso from left shoulder to right hip. On it the name “Carolyn Corlew” was emblazoned in royal blue letters. I started running again, not because I had the Eye of the Tiger, or even because I was ashamed that I was being outrun by a woman who clearly had a decade or two on me. No, I ran because if I didn’t catch up with the woman with the sash, I would never know her story.
“So,” I asked when I caught up with the woman, “is your name Carolyn Corlew?”
“Yes it is!” she said. “I’m Senior Ms. America! Can you believe it?”
She showed me the front of her sash, in case I couldn’t believe it. Sure enough. She was Senior Ms. America.
“Are you the current Senior Ms. America,” I asked, “or a former Senior Ms. America?” I wanted to know: there could be dozens of former Senior Ms. Americas kicking around, after all, but only one current one.
“Current!” she said. “I’m Senior Ms. America right now!”
This was her eighth Country Music Half-Marathon, she told me. She was from Mount Juliet, Tennessee, where she worked for Charlie Daniels. She started singing background vocals for him in 1979. Let me put that in context: when Charlie Daniels recorded “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” she was there. That song was as important to eleven-year-old Jonathan Rogers as—I don’t know, as some Rich Mullins song was to some of the folks around here. I stood in mute astonishment. But only for a second, because Carolyn Corlew was still running, and I didn’t want her to get away from me.
We came to a sharp switch-back. Everybody in front of us was cutting across the sidewalk, saving themselves a few steps. And who could blame them at Mile 12? “You’re cheating!” Carolyn shouted. “I never cheat.”
“Me neither,” I said. That wasn’t, properly speaking, true, but Carolyn Corlew made me wish I was the kind of person who never cheated. I dutifully ran those extra ten steps with her.
Pete Peterson says that running for fun is insane. Maybe so. Nevertheless, I must say it has done me quite a bit of good to do something hard for which I have no real talent and which I don’t exactly enjoy. It has been suggested that one of the most important things that separates us from the beasts is the fact that we humans can make ourselves do that which we don’t want to do. A monkey or a goat can’t bind his own will. As Chesterton said, “I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself. ”
Here in my forties I have gained wisdom from running that I never gained from books. To wit: I have learned never to ask, “Can I run 13.1 miles?” (the answer is probably no) but only to ask “Can I run to the next telephone pole” (the answer is probably yes). To apply this principle to my line of work, people don’t write books: they write sentences.
Here’s another thing I have learned from running: there are a hundred reasons to quit, yet it is surprising what a small reason will keep you going. A small word of encouragement. Curiosity about a woman running in a beauty pageant sash. Long after I thought I was done, I ran two last miles rather than walking them, thanks to the current Senior Ms. America. We crossed the finish line together.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we’ve ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.