When I stood on the starting line of the Los Angeles Marathon this spring, my main objective was to beat my husband. This was to be John's first marathon and my 10th.
After years of track and cross-country, where I learned to jab with my elbows and spit neatly between my front teeth, I'd discovered that I'd grown from an upstart kid who kicked out short races into an adult athlete who valued serious training. Still, the marathon was my race; I didn't want to be dethroned by my husband. I liked to picture myself passing him at 20 miles while he did the survivor's shuffle.
When the starting gun went off, John and I said hasty goodbyes. I wound my way out of Dodger Stadium and through Echo Park. My legs felt stiff and leaden, and my husband was already ahead of me.
I stopped at a bank of toilets and got in line. A woman jumped from the flow of runners to help a paraplegic racer out of her wheelchair and into a stall. All of us waiting watched the two women struggle over to a bathroom. Then the door shut and locked. The woman who'd stopped rejoined the race.
Soon the door opened a few inches. The two runners in front of me looked away, up into the empty sky. I glanced up too. There was nothing up there. No interesting cloud formations, no birds, no blimps, no planes trailing beer advertisements. None of us wanted to help the paraplegic racer get back to her chair. But what would she do if no one helped her? Crawl on her belly? I ran over to her.
"I can support your weight," I said.
Her wheelchair was at the curb. I put my sweaty arm around her sweaty back and held her underneath her arms. We hobbled back to the chair.
"You won't be disqualified for helping me, will you?"
I thought of the people who had looked away, in other races, on other days — people like me, who are eager to compete over just about anything and might turn from a person in need merely to keep from being slowed down or distracted from a purpose.
I assured her my race was not in any jeopardy.
"Thank you." She looked me right in the eye. A sincere and beautiful thanks that I won't soon forget.
Then she zipped away, and I cut the bathroom line.
A few hours later, I finished my 26.2 miles, respectably, though an hour slower than my best.
John waited in the family reunion area, sunburned and smiling. He'd finished 10 minutes before me, even after his knees had seized up at mile 23 and he'd walked for a bit. I could live with that. Next time I'd beat him. This time I helped another marathoner, which was surprisingly better than winning. Perhaps I've grown into a different kind of athlete once again, one who no longer always needs to race.
Peale, a Los Angeles-based writer, is the author of the novel "The American Painter Emma Dial."