Slow-Moving Freight Trains Have a Lesson for Us All

There you are, running a marathon. You've prepared for this day for months. Sweated every detail, worked so hard, pushed through so many tough runs. And it's paying off! You're right on pace, feeling good, cruising along. Until you aren't. Suddenly everything screeches to a halt.


Slow-Moving Freight Train.

Slow-Moving Freight Train?!? Shit! What's a Slow-Moving Freight Train doing here? Doesn't Slow-Moving Freight Train know there's a marathon going on? What sort of moron drives a Slow-Moving Freight Train right over a race course? Does Slow-Moving Freight Train know how hard you trained for this day, and for how long? And can't Slow-Moving Freight Train go any faster? 

You shouldn't be standing here in the road, watching the seconds tick by on your watch. You should be running! But you can't! Because there's a f***ing Slow-Moving Freight Train blocking your way!


Many of you reading this have probably read or heard of the latest story from the Slow-Moving Freight Train files. It happened Sunday, during the Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon in eastern Pennsylvania, where a Norfolk Southern Railway freight train rumbled across the course around the 7-mile mark.

These stories are not uncommon and when they happen they tend to get wide coverage. Non-runners delight in them because they like to see runners fume and sputter and because they can loudly condemn the inevitable stupid handful who jump between the cars. 

The media like these stories, too, because they're reliably popular (see above) and because they can use the phrase "derail plans" in the headline

Runners, for their part, react in fairly predictable ways. A certain percentage are amused, bemused, nonplussed. A smaller, and much more vocal, percentage explodes with white-hot rage and self-righteous indignation.

Unacceptable! Outrageous! Unbelievable! I was trying to BQ!!!

In the most recent case, some are slamming the race organizers (the train incident was not their fault) and "suggesting the marathon be avoided in the future because of the episode."

You might say this response is natural and understandable, and maybe it is. But you know what? The Slow-Moving Freight Train still doesn't care. And there's a lesson in that for all of us, whether we're runners or not.

Here's the thing.

Slow-Moving Freight Train isn't just a train. It's a symbol. A huge, implacable, unstoppable reminder that while we humans like to think we are in control, we are not. You cannot ignore a Slow-Moving Freight Train. No amount of wailing or gnashing of teeth or self-righteous indignation will make Slow-Moving Freight Train go away or move any faster. No amount of shrieking at the race director will help. No number of angry, contemptuous emails or tweets. Slow-Moving Freight Train is still there, still grinding on.

Slow-Moving Freight Train is deus ex machina in reverse—a thing that pops up unexpectedly and provides a contrived problem to a solution, instead of the other way around. 

It's bad enough for the average motorist who gets stuck waiting for a Slow-Moving Freight Train, making him late for work or an appointment or whatever. For a marathon runner, who's been told again and again that he is a special sort of human who is so tough he cannot be stopped, it's a brutal—and infuriating—reminder that no, actually, he isn't. That in real life, there are indeed some obstacles that will not, and cannot, be overcome, no matter how "tough" you are.

This, in my opinion, is why certain runners in this situation get so furious. It's not because their race has been interrupted for a few minutes, or even that their plans for a Boston qualifying time may be dashed. 

It's because they're being confronted, unavoidably and inescapably, with a huge, noisy, tangible reminder that they aren't really so special. That they aren't the center of the universe. That they don't matter nearly as much as they like to think they do.

We marathoners like to think we are an irresistible force, and we are... until we meet a truly unmovable object. Then that illusion is shattered.

It's a hard reality to confront at any time. Doubly so when it happens unexpectedly. Triply so when it happens unexpectedly and you're in the middle of an event like the marathon, which has become one of the most visible ways we can stoke our own sense of toughness and specialness.

Slow-Moving Freight Train doesn't care about you or your plans. "Here I am," says Slow-Moving Freight Train. "Deal with it."

How we deal with it, or fail to, says a lot about us. Do we react with good humor and grace? Or do we boil over? Both paths lead to the exact same spot—i.e., standing in front of a Slow-Moving Freight Train. 

Our time on this planet is short. During that time, life will send a few Slow-Moving Freight Trains our way—both real and metaphorical. If you can find a way to make peace with that, you'll be a happier human.