As the International Herald Tribune’s Jeff Zeleny put it this morning, if this election were a marathon, we’d be at mile 25 now. Having run the 33rd annual Marine Corps Marathon last Sunday, I have to agree with him.

It’s at mile 25 where exhaustion falls by the wayside and every runners’ eyes are focused dead ahead, on a finish line they can’t quite see but know is coming fast. By mile 25, there are no more questions about whether or not you’ll finish; the questions now are how you’ll finish, how you’ll feel afterward and how you’ll handle the backlash.

A marathon is a pretty good metaphor for a presidential election, although in a marathon the distance between spectator and competitor is much less than in an election, and the sense of community among athletes is much stronger than that among competing politicians. But that sense of community – whether from athletes, spectators, candidates or voters – defines both the marathon and the election, and has a lot to do with how everyone feels at the end.

As far as the marathon goes, I was inspired and energized by the incredible sense of community that dominated the race course – both from my fellow runners and from the crowds of spectators. Runners cheered for each other and cracked jokes in passing. Marines kept us moving with drill sergeant-esque commands to suck it up and pick up the pace. And the spectators cheered for anyone with a name printed on their shirt, held out snacks, waved signs, shouted, clapped and rang cowbells throughout the entire course, bursting with enthusiasm whether they had been watching for 15 minutes or four hours.

Everyone out there, watching or running, was part of the same community. And the positive energy generated by the faith of that community in the athletes they were supporting was a powerful thing. I find myself thinking about it now, marveling at the force of all that hope and determination, and wondering what it could do on a national level.

The presidential candidates are rounding the last corner of mile 24 now and by tonight, making their last speeches, they’ll have passed the 25-mile mark and be pounding down the home stretch, teeth gritted in determination until the moment it becomes clear who will be the victor.

Since I’ve already finished my marathon, I’ve had more of a chance to look ahead than the candidates have lately, and I have a challenge for our next president, whether he turns out to be Barack Obama or John McCain:

Hold onto the sense of community that’s grown among your supporters, among the citizens of this country, during the campaign. It’s been a long one and we’re all tired of it, but we’re united in our desire to see a better, brighter future for America. Take that unity and hold it up for the country to see, make it clear that regardless of who any one person voted for, the next steps in American history are up to all of us. Foster that sense of community among the diverse voices that comprise the citizenship of our country – if you do, I believe that you’ll be able to accomplish more than any president in the last twenty years has dreamed possible.

Use the collective energy of that community to fix what’s broken: give children a positive public school experience, leaving squabbles over prayer and creationism out of the classroom and keeping personal faith at home for the betterment of their education. Gather that community around minority groups – the LGBT community, Muslim-Americans, Sikhs – who are too often the innocent victims of attackers who don’t understand them and only recognize them as different and therefore dangerous. Pit the enormity of that positive vibe against the negativity of the Religious Right’s extremist positions, and let’s see if we can’t overwhelm them in such a way that makes their self-absorbed, blind hatred obsolete.

I believe the American people have the power to accomplish all that and more and I challenge you, Mr. President, to harness it. The marathon’s almost over, but the real test of strength has yet to begin. I hope you have the guts to meet it head-on, and win.

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  • Former Marathoner

    Well said – not only in taking the analogy between a marathon and the election several steps further, but in the inspirational call for unity and “sense of community”.

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