In my past 30 years of living in Southern California, I never attended the LA Marathon, either as a spectator or a participant for a variety of reasons. But that has now changed and for a very good reason - the involvement in the marathon of an organization that I believe in so much, and have received an abundance of overwhelming and emotional inspiration from over the course of the last year, The Special Olympics.
I met with Luke at the SOSC Headquarters several weeks prior to the marathon and discovered the athlete I was to cover was Jayson Warsuma, a Special Olympics World Games LA 2015 Global Messenger. Jayson greeted me with such warmth and friendliness that whatever grumpiness I have left over from waking up so early to be there; I am not a morning person, was quickly and instantaneously washed away. I began by asking Jayson how he became involved in the Special Olympics. Jayson told me that in January 2010, he was in search of something to turn his negative thoughts into positive thoughts and when he saw an ad for the Special Olympics, he knew he found that â€śsomething.â€ť Soon thereafter, Jayson signed up for the Special Olympics track and field and was quickly accepted as one of the athletes. Jayson said, with a big smile on his face, that when he showed up for the first day of practice, he felt, â€śbeautifulâ€ť, despite the rain that caused the cancellation of practice.
I listened as Jayson shared with me his first competition that took place in Brentwood California. Jayson explained to me how hot it was that day but that when he competed in the 400 meter race; one of multiple races he competed in that day, he came in first. Jayson went on to tell me how he was not expecting that level of success on his very first race, and that multiple people quickly came up to him, including the coach, commenting to him how quick he was and calling him, â€śA rock star.â€ť I noticed as Jayson was sharing with me the events of the day, it appeared more as if he was vividly reliving that day out loud to himself as if he was the only one in the room rather than simply answering my questions; he even vividly recalled what he was wearing and the name of the coach: coach Ava. Listening to Jayson, I could have closed my eyes and virtually seen myself running next to him as he pushed himself towards the finish line.
As Jayson proudly but humbly displayed to me his variety of medals he has won over the years, he shared with me that his participation in the Special Olympics led him to the Special Olympics World Games LA2015, where he excitedly told me he was the first American to win the gold in the Unified Sports half marathon during the competitions; competitors of this marathon including members of the public and of athletes from around the world. Jayson said the upcoming LA marathon would be his sixth one and that he was the only Special Olympics athlete participating with the SOSC team, in addition to being a pacesetter for the LA Roadrunners; a running group based out of Venice, California participating in the marathon.
When I asked Jayson to select one person who was most influential and inspiring to him since he joined the Special Olympics, Jayson said he was not able to choose just one because there are so many that helped him along the way and he considered role models of them all. Jayson added that the words of one of these individuals helped guide him along his journey: â€śGo your own wayâ€¦find your own pathâ€¦make right choices in lifeâ€¦.â€ť The interview concluded with Jayson somberly sharing with me his words of advice to other special needs athletes: â€śDonâ€™t feel bad because in life we will get challenges. We have to figure out a way to overcome our challenges. We have to be positive. We have to set an exampleâ€¦.â€ť Words that resonated deep within me as I reflected upon my own lifeâ€™s challenges as someone who has continuously struggled with Aspergerâ€™s Syndrome.
On the morning of the marathon, February 14th, I met with Luke at Dodger Stadium where the marathon was to begin. During my 2 Hour drive there, I could not have imagined that many people would be arriving at the stadium at 5:30 in the morning...too darn early for me. But upon my arrival, I found the stadium a hustle and bustle of excited and anticipatory activity, complete with a live band and joyful people dancing to the beat. Between the infusion of caffeine into my body and the excitement of the crowd, my morning grumpiness quickly dissipated as I was infected with this very same excitement.
Jayson arrived a short while later and I noticed he virtually could not stand still as he excitedly greeted people around him and anticipated the start of the marathon. When Jayson began to make his way through the crowd of runners to take his place among his pace group, I struggled to keep up ladened with all of my equipment as I humorously noticed that in spite of Jasonâ€™s quick pace, he made it a point to greet those he passed along the way with a huge grinning smile complimented with either a handshake or a â€śhigh five.â€ť If I had thought prior to this point that Jaysonâ€™s exuberance only infected me, I quickly was proven wrong as I noticed that virtually every person that Jayson came near was quickly infected in the same way.
Once we found our spot near the front of the thousands of runners, one would think that Jayson would spend the few remaining moments before the start of the marathon mentally preparing him for what was about to begin. This was not the case as for Jayson continued to stir excitement among those around him and bring instant smiles to their faces as he excitedly paced around as if he was a race horse waiting for the starting gate to open. Finally, the starting horn sounded and off they went, with Jayson focusing his attention to what lied in front of him. I stood stationary in the middle of the mass as runner after runner after runner swept past me; I noticed the runners were from all walks of life, all age groups, and from a variety of different nationalities - truly a runnerâ€™s melting pot. As I gazed upon those faces, I noticed a variety of expressions: from happy excited smiles to those of inward determined focus to sheer amazement at being a part of something so grand.
After 15 minutes of standing in the sea of seemingly endless runners, I realized if I waited for the last runners to past, I would miss the beginnings of the finishers so I departed for Santa Monica, where the end of the 26-mile marathon was located. Reflecting back upon my morning that would linger within me for days to come, I had no idea of the other emotions I would experience during the remainder of the day, but I was excitedly looking forward to it. Less than three hours later, after quick bit to eat as to fuel me for the remainder of the day, I made my way to a choice spot near the finish line just as some of the early finishers were arriving.
As I waited for Jayson, I noticed on the faces of those already finishing, everything from looks of exhausted but triumphant glee to looks of teary-eyed sheer determination pushed to their limits. More than once I choked back tears of inspiration and an overpowering empathetic feeling accomplishment within me as I witnessed runner after runner break into tears, with some beginning to sob upon their journeyâ€™s end. And to compliment this ending point of the runnerâ€™s emotionally-charged journey, was the surreal mist enveloping the runners as they focused their last bit of heart and soul towards the finish line, a visual scene I could see gracing the pages of a novel about human endurance and determination.
Then, at time 3 hours and 11 minutes, a time I could have only imagined myself finishing inâ€¦if only I was much younger, I see Jayson steaming towards the finish line with a huge grin on his face strained by the sheer determination of willpower and exertion. Instead of seeking water to replenish himself after he crosses the finish line, Jayson sees me and stops for a photo op-Jayson loves the camera-then accepts a huge embrace from an elderly fan. Only then, after Jayson makes his rounds joyfully greeting those near him, does Jayson get himself a drink and takes a moment to catch his breath. Then off he goes again, gleefully greeting others with the exuberance of someone who was well rested and about to begin the marathon, not someone who had just completed running the 26 miles of it. I watched as Jayson spotted a Channel 5 news reporter covering the event and, just like an Eagle swooping it to catch his prey, Jayson hurried up to the reporter and without hesitation, declared he should be interviewed. Well, if you ever met Jayson, youâ€™d know he does not take no for an answer. I suspected the reporter sensed that in Jayson too and that any denial would be fruitless. Jayson got his interview. After Jayson had his moment of well-deserved air time, I had but a moment to ask of him how he felt about finishing the marathon. In reply, Jayson excitedly belted, â€śIt was great. It was wonderfulâ€¦beautifulâ€¦excellent.â€ť Then off he goes, to a celebratory after-party; I found myself already looking forward to the next time I could be immersed in the atmosphere of excitement and energy Jayson brings to every event he attends.
I had planned on my day coming to a close after my coverage of Jayson was complete. But as I stood among the flurry of congratulatory hugs, tearful finishes, and occasional volunteers dashing to assist collapsing runners, I felt compelled to remain behind to witness more of the abundance of inspiration, human spirit, and kindness for one another that seemed to be in endless supply. Again, I found myself choking back tears from being caught up in wave after wave of raw emotions shared among those present. A bystander asked me, â€śWhy do some of them collapse when they reach the finish line?â€ť My reply was laced with a somber but heart-felt tone: â€śBecause they put everything within them into it, every ounce of strength, determination, and sheer willpower and once they cross that finish line, they have nothing left.â€ť
I watched after athelete after athlete after athlete push themselves to the limits to cross the finish line that day, and I was repeatedly struck with a sense of admiration and awe as I noticed many of them were persons with physical disabilities, which obviously did not hold them back. One such person I was to learn, was Richard Radford, who was a Legacy runner-a person who has ran in every LA Marathon since the first one in 1986.
I started this assignment with the intent to simply cover a special needs athleteâ€™s participation in the LA Marathon. But what I found instead, was an emotional transformation into a visual reliving of the very same examples of human courage, endurance, and determination I had the pleasure of repeatedly witnessing at the Special Olympic World Games and other Special Olympic events within the last year. What a way to spend Valentine's Day such as this-a day filled with an abundance of human compassion, love, and camaraderie. I wish this experience upon everyone!
(To view all of the images Freddie B. captured at the event, go to: http://goo.gl/wtgNCj
(Scroll to end to see Freddie B's Bio.)