Mile 17

By Lillian Mongeau

At mile 21 of a marathon, there’s no question. You’ll finish. At mile 23, your body is just moving forward, doing what you’ve trained it to do. You’re not thinking. You’re moving. At mile 26.1, the last of your adrenaline has kicked in and they’re cheering, cheering, cheering.

But at mile 17, none of that is assured. At mile 17, everything hurts and you have a decision to make. Do you slog forward? Arms akimbo, knees wailing, soles burning… Or do you stop? Give up. Call it good. Sometimes, quitting is the sanest option.

Right now, it feels like the whole world is at mile 17. Police shooting, police shooting, police shooting, police shot. Venezuela is out of food. Syria is out of time. Britain is out of its mind. Candidate one offers no policies. Candidate two feels above the law. Black lives don’t matter enough. Female lives aren’t much better.  Frankly, though there are degrees of bad, no one else in the 99 percent has it all that peachy-keen either. Veterans die every day, by their own hand. Immigrants are sent “home” for the crime of wanting a better life. Women who used to be men are banned from bathrooms.


Lillian Mongeau runs through mile 12 of the Philadelphia Marathon in 2014. (Photo: Amy Mongeau)

What gets you through mile 17 is that crisp, clean morning run back in April; the grey mist, the edge of morning light, the miles unfurling like a silk sheet. It’s that hotter-than-Hades hill workout in July; sweat in places you didn’t know could sweat, pulsing heart, aching thighs, sunburnt shoulders. It’s the food you fuel your body with, the music that fuels your mind. It’s the lady in a pink tank top just ahead of you and the man with a neon yellow sweat band just behind.

“We hold these truths to be self evident,” is what is going to have to get us through. “That all men our created equal,” must be our fuel. “I have a dream,” is our clean, crisp morning. The Depression, the War, the Movement — these are our hill workout. Let us pull on these things now. Let us pursue life, together; liberty, together; happiness, together.

That lady in the pink tank top? She runs for her sister, who has overcome addiction. Or she runs for herself, a former victim of rape. Or she runs for her homeland, torn by war. The man with the neon headband? Perhaps his ancestors marched in Selma. Perhaps his ancestors before that were slaves. Perhaps his ancestors before that were princes. You don’t know these people’s past and they don’t know yours. It doesn’t matter. Right now, you’re all at mile 17 and you have a long way left to go. All you need to know is that everyone is running the best race they have in them.

Run steady. Run strong. Run together. Sometimes quitting is the sanest option. But not today. Today we must run. We must not falter. We cannot afford to stop.

Photograph: Amy Mongeau


Lillian Mongeau (Hughes) is a journalist and a runner. She writes about education for The Hechinger Report. She runs to stay sane.

Editor’s note: I met Lilly through the Community Writers program in 2008, when I edited the weekly essays of a dozen citizen writers whose work appeared in The Oregonian. I was drawn to Lilly’s intelligence and flat-out energy from the start and count myself lucky to be a friend and colleague, now that she’s a full-time journalist in her own right.

Tomorrow: Michelle Love, Proof of service

7 thoughts on “Mile 17

  1. Thank you Lilly for this clear and moving piece on the state of the world today and your suggestions for moving through mile 17. I hope the images can touch everyone even those of is who are not runners. This is my favorite August voice so far!!!

  2. What a great analogy about the state of our world today. Whereas I have never been a runner, I think I emotionally feel like runners would physically feel at the 17-mile mark. I have grown too exhausted from the state of our world and our country. I just hope we figure it out before everyone collapses in a heap of exhaustion!

  3. This is the most beautiful and identifiable analogy I have ever read. I’m literally teary-eyed reading it. Mile 17 is brutal. I’ve often heard, “Why didn’t Pheidippides die HERE?!” The whole world is at Mile 17 and perhaps together we can move on to the cheering and brotherhood that comes at mile 22 and the victory of 26.2.

  4. What a piece Lilly!!!
    The insight, the analogy, the wit! I love the part about not knowing people’s past, each other’s past but yet having to run out best race under the creed of “we hold this truth to be self evident…” And “I have a dream…”
    Brilliant piece!

  5. So true that what we experience in the moment has been created in the past. Great when it helps you reach the finish line, but not so great when it causes a terrorist attack or a shooting. Who is responsible? We don’t know. One tool we have is to focus on the positive. Athletes often visualize their dream being fulfilled – maybe that’s one way to get to Mile 26. Nicely written – powerful format for the things you wanted to say!

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