Yesterday, I got behind a car with one of those little oval bumper stickers people get when they run a race, like a marathon.  My wife’s car has a couple of those—a 13.1 for the first half-marathon she ran and the one she really cherishes, a 26.2, which she got after running her first marathon this past year.  You see them everywhere.

This one said, “5K”.

My first thought was, “Seriously?  You’re putting a sticker on your car to tell the world you ran three miles? Call me when you’ve done something impressive.”  After all, I know some people who have really earned those stickers.  If you ask my wife, Marie, why she ran that marathon, you’ll probably get a number of answers, but the first one is likely to be, “so I could put that ‘26.1’ sticker on the back of my car.”  I remember when she finished the race.  She and her running buddy, Susan, crossed the finish line together and were met by Susan’s husband, Brent, who had secretly ordered a pair of those stickers for the girls when they finally knocked off that first marathon.  Brent has one of those stickers too, plus what might be the Big Kahuna of race stickers, a “140.6” for his Ironman triathlon.  And this guy was showing off his 5K?  C’mon.

At the next light, we were in different lanes, and I inched up to see what he looked like.  It was dark and he was wearing a hat, so it was hard to tell his age or anything else about him, other than that he was a man.  As we pulled away from the light, I wondered, “what sort of guy puts a ‘5K’ sticker on his car?”

And then I got to thinking about the question.  Really, what sort of guy does put a 5K sticker on his car?  The answers I came up with didn’t make me feel so smug anymore.

It occurred to me that I don’t know a thing about the man or how he earned that sticker.  But I started to imagine him.

Maybe that race was the first after knee surgery.  Maybe a year ago, this guy was playing pickup basketball when he jumped for a rebound, came down funny, and heard that dreaded “pop” and felt a searing pain as his knee blew apart and started to swell up like a balloon.  Maybe, as he pushed himself through those painful reps in PT, he used the thought of this sticker, this first race back, to get to the end of his session.

Maybe the scars weren’t on his knee.  Maybe they were on his chest.  Could it be that this man had suffered a heart attack, that he’d felt those first symptoms—the nausea and anxiety and sweating, and hoped it was just the flu, until the elephant sat on his chest and the pain shot down his arm and his wife called the paramedics and sat with him and prayed like hell for him to hang on until they got there?  Maybe the germ of the idea that led to this sticker was planted as he lay awake in his bed in the cardiac step-down unit, coming off emergency bypass surgery, listening to the night sounds of his hospital room—the beeping of the monitors, the humming of machines and the footsteps of nurses on their rounds–and he realized he was going to live, but he didn’t know how, and in that moment, he managed to push back the shadow of fear and self-pity and sadness he was feeling and recognized that he had what most heart attack victims never get:  a second chance—that most people who throw a piece of plaque into their coronary arteries are dead before they hit the floor—and in the night in that hospital ward, he made a deal with a god he wasn’t even sure he believed in:  “get me through this,” he thought, “and I’ll change things.  I’ll eat better.  I’ll manage my stress.  I’ll spend time with my kids and my wife.   And as soon as I can, I’m going to tie on those running shoes and start moving.” And he kept that promise–started the very next day when the therapist helped him swing his slippered feet over the edge of his bed.   Those first steps down the hospital corridor led to more, down the driveway to the mailbox at the curb, and then to the corner, then around the block, and finally, to the finish line of that 5K.

Or maybe he was a vet.  I couldn’t see below the dashboard.  I couldn’t count his legs.  Maybe he had only one—the right one.  Maybe the other one was left in Fallujah or Kandahar, lost to a mine or an IED, and this guy came home wondering how he would make himself whole after losing his leg and his innocence and his friends in a hell that nobody around him could really understand.  Maybe he knew people like him who never found their way.  Maybe they’d turned to drugs or booze or crime or a pistol to the temple, running away from ghosts they couldn’t shake, but he’d decided just to run.  He’d mastered his prosthetic and decided, “what the hell.  I’m a soldier.  This is a mission,” and started running.  Maybe it hurt at first.  Maybe he fell.  Maybe he bled or bruised and wanted to quit, but somebody helped him—found him a leg meant for running and helped him raise the money to get it.  Who knows how many people were at the finish line of that 5K, waving flags, cheering, crying as he broke that tape?

As I imagined this guy, creating mountains for him to climb over, that sticker looked different to me.  What was wrong with me?  This guy didn’t have to apologize to anyone for that oval sticker.  I should be apologizing to him—he was a hero.

And then I had another thought—and I felt like an even bigger fool.

Because, what if he wasn’t a hero?

What if he was just a regular guy, a guy who went to work and took his kids to their lessons and games and watched TV, but three or four times a week, he put on his sneakers and the sweatshirt he got from his daughter’s college and did his three miles?  Maybe he saw all those 13.1s and 26.2s and thought about whether he should put that 5K that came in the race packet for his neighborhood fun run on his bumper, and chuckled and thought, “More power to you, road warriors, but 3 miles is enough for me.”

And maybe it’s enough for him because, when he comes home from a hard day or a good day at his job, and his mind is crowded with unfinished work and unpaid bills and half-done projects and his kids and their dramas and his parents and theirs, he puts on his running shoes and jogs out into the warm evening in the summer or the chilly darkness in the winter, and waves to his neighbors, and feels his feet against the pavement, and feels his breath quicken, and notices the changes in the world around him—the new store opening or the deck somebody’s building, and he listens to his music or a podcast of a show he likes, and his thoughts stop clamoring for his attention and let him be for a while.

He thinks about big things, like his folks and his kids getting older and whether he and his wife will always want to stay in their house, and he thinks about little things, like how the cars he jogs by look different than they used to, or he thinks about nothing, and his breath and his footsteps combine to make a sort of windshield-wiper rhythm that he just rides along through the last mile of his run, and then he gets to the hill right before the finish.  If it’s been a strong day, he puts his head back, pumps his arms, and lengthens his stride and he bursts over the crest of the hill feeling like he just outraced Usain Bolt, and if it’s been a tough one, he puts his head down and puts one foot in front of the other, and knows he’ll draw on the will to finish that he’s building up here when he has a project to get done at the office.  He’ll say to himself, “this isn’t fun, but if I can get up over that hill feeling like I did yesterday, I can knock this off and do it right.”

Either way, when he gets to the end of that three miles, that 5K, his mind is clear, and his body feels strong, and he’s more aware then than at any other time that he’s alive for another day of who knows how many, but he’s got this one in the bag, and like those three miles, nobody can take it away.  He feels so damned good about it he wants to tell the world.

So he puts that sticker on his car.

And he earned it.  Good for him.