By Christopher Cudworth
Here in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, there’s quite a bit of pride in the heritage and history that Abraham Lincoln lends to the state. Springfield, Illinois is one of the places Lincoln called home, and the history of his journey from the prairies of the Midwest to the White House has spawned much admiration and more than a few legends along the way.
Truth from fiction
In many ways it is hard to separate the truth from fiction about Lincoln. The current film Lincoln focuses on the 16th president’s work to pass the Emancipation Proclamation. The movie is ostensibly historical in tone, yet some critics find pause in the portrayal not just of Lincoln, but of the people around him, including Mary Todd Lincoln.
One of the fascinating aspects of the film is how Daniel Day Lewis portrays the gangly Lincoln. His walk seems an angular shuffle. Lincoln apparently did seem a little awkward in real life, if only because he was taller than most of his peers, who averaged much shorter in height than today’s American citizens, where 6’2″ and taller is not that uncommon. But in Lincoln’s day, he was akin to a basketball center.
If Lincoln were alive today
So let us imagine if Lincoln were alive today. Possessed of a naturally thin frame, he might have tried out for basketball at some point. But lacking the coordination to drive to the hoop, and strength to block out on the boards, he might have failed to make the basketball team. The basketball coach would have watched him walk out the door muttering, “There goes a waste of height.”
Yet Lincoln, being the intellectual type, might have hung out with some physics and engineering kids who were cross country runners. That tends to be the trend, you know. Both male and female runners often excel in academics. Whether that is due to basic intellect or a solid work ethic has yet to be determined. But suffice to say that across the country runners tend to do better on average with their grades than athletes in many other sports. Were Lincoln alive today, he might find plenty of company among runners who love the books, as Lincoln did.
So imagine for a moment that Abraham Lincoln were dragged out for the sport of cross country as a freshman. Tall and gangly, he would not succeed at first. His long days running would result in fatigued legs and gaunt cheeks, yet something would resonate with him. Something deep and real.
The person of Abraham Lincoln who persevered in the face of national crisis and political opposition would be drawn to the emotional and physical challenge of distance running. His running style would be formed through miles of effort. He would gain strength across the length of that angled frame and begin to see thin lines of muscle gripping his bones. He would eat like a horse, drink tons of water and finish as 18th man on the cross country squad. Not a sophomore letter as yet, but with visions of the future.
Over the next summer he would join his friends on longer runs, and something would start to click. His calves would seem to gain snap. His carriage would even out. He even stand up straight at last. Even his parents and friends would take notice, complimenting him on his growing confidence as a person.
Then, in the present moment, a young woman with whom he works at the pool concession stand takes an interest in Abe even though his pigeon chest is nothing to brag about even in the summer sun. The two of them would start to hang out, and Abraham speaks with pride about his running, and she would sometimes touch his arm as they talked. At first he drew back. But then he grows to desire her touch, her attention. On a warm summer night under a full moon, they exchange their first kiss.
The next day, Abraham Lincoln feels so good about himself that he hovers near the front of the group of runners for the first time. One of his friends, a senior with a shock of red hair and a dirty mind would jest, “Look at you Abraham. You’re running great! Are you getting laid or something?”
The shy young Abraham in his high voice would respond, “No.” But the kidding would not stop the rest of the summer. Instead of holding him down, it seems to drive him on. He moves up in the running ranks over the summer months. By the end of summer he is knocking on the door of being a legitimate contender to make the sophomore Top 7.
And he does. And the team does well that fall.
‘That spring Abraham Lincoln gives track a try as well, working out with weights and even high jumping once in a while because it feels so good to jump. He clears his own height, 6’2″ in the final meet of the year. Yet he tells the track coach he is a runner, not a jumper. The coach just smiles. “You can be whatever you want to be, Abraham. Remember that.”
By his junior year young Abraham has grown his first whisp of a beard. The girl he met two summers before has stayed close, but they are now mostly just friends. She still comes to his meets but is dating another boy. Abraham is jealous of their relationship in a way, yet he is mostly happy knowing she is happy. The boy she is dating is a good person. He even comes to the cross country meets with her, and cheers the team on. A good guy. One can never argue when a girl likes a good guy. Even a girl you still like yourself.
Yet Abraham is now dating a senior girl who comes to meets to watch him run but doesn’t seem to “get” the sport. When Abraham runs by she does not even break conversation with her friend, who is gesturing animatedly and Abraham hears her friend say, “And I don’t even know why he dates her either…” which makes him think long and hard the rest of the race about his own choices in dating.
But for now he forgives her, because she really is a good kisser. But that’s about all he’s willing to say about that.
Moving up in the world
During his senior year the still gangly but now confident and fast Abraham Lincoln places in the Top 10 in the conference cross country meet. He even helps lead his team downstate where the excitement of running against the best inspires Abraham to run faster than ever before, just missing All State in 29th place and finishing second man on the team, which places 5th overall. The congratulations and joy of such an accomplishment makes Abraham want to continue running for years. So he commits to a small liberal arts college and after 4 years, graduates with a pre-law degree. The closest he comes to winning a college cross country meet is 2nd place in a dual. Yet he’s proud of that, for it is a small measure of a lot of hard effort. And Abraham Lincoln always respects hard effort.
Law school and marathoning
During law school with long hours of study, Abraham Lincoln craves relief from study. So he gets back into running, often going out at 5:30 in the morning or 8:30 at night. Despite the heavy academic lifting of law school, Abraham sticks with his running and gets an idea in his head to run the Chicago Marathon that October.
Race day dawns cool and bright. Abraham knows he should have run more miles in preparation for the race, yet he feels confident and eager on the starting line. The cannon sounds and the crowd his off. The head of Abraham Lincoln still juts above the crowd, for he is tall as runners go. Always has been. Always will be. Yet his practiced stride carries him mile after mile. He passes the half-marathon at an aggressive 1:16 pace. There is a growing fatigue in his legs and he thinks he may have miscalculated. Pain sets in, yet the miles continue to roll, and at 20 miles––with 6.2 to go––he grinds past the point where The Wall might hit and struggles home, exhausted, barely able to lift his arms it seems, finishing in 2:36.22. 6:00 a mile. A great marathon PR, especially for a first timer. Abraham Lincoln is 5th among all runners from his native Illinois.
Recovery on a bike
Abraham is proud and exhausted after his marathon. Yet for days he can barely run, for his quads are toast and his calves feel like mush. So he borrows a friend’s road bike to ride some miles until he can run again. The bike barely fits his lanky frame but Abraham clips into the strange new shoes that attach to the bike pedals and…finds another new friend. Riding feels just as good as running. He likes the feel of the breeze in his beard, the sheen of sweat rolling down his pumping thighs and he thinks to himself, “Why, I could ride from here to Washington, D.C. if I tried.”
The feeling of riding that bike is absolutely emancipating. Something inside Abraham Lincoln resonates all over again. He decides he really likes to run and ride.
Sorry, no swimming
But Abraham does not like to swim. He still sinks like a long rock. That girl back in the summer of his freshman year used to tease him about how his legs seemed to drag toward the bottom whenever he got in deep water.
“You’ve got no natural buoyancy,” she’d tease. “You’re all skin and bones.”
Yet they’ve been seeing each other again, and her presence makes him feel, well, buoyant. Her eyes still have the same summery shine. There is something about her that never leaves his mind or his heart. He thinks he may be in love, because when she touches his arm, a tingle still runs all the way up to his neck. Her name is Mary. An old-fashioned sort of name. Abraham likes saying it.
Perhaps they should get married. He starts to think seriously about the prospect. His prospects. What he is going to do with his life. And he wants her there.
Working things out
But for the moment, they talk in fierce sessions all through the night. She confesses to a certain rushed anxiety about the world. She goes on an occasional shopping binge. And she doesn’t know what to make of God, and how she was brought up in a Christian household, yet never seemed to find the answers she needed in her conservative brand of faith. So, Mary tells Abraham Lincoln that she is seeing a really great counselor, who prescribes a simple drug to help manage her anxiety. And Mary is feeling better. More able to think clearly, and make decisions. She even understands her personal faith a bit better, and is not so desperate to know all the answers, all the time. She turns some of that over to God in prayer. It gives her peace.
Mary’s impact on Abraham
It occurs to Abraham that he, too, might be depressed. Even when things are going well, it feels like he is swimming against the current of life, his emotional legs dragging behind him.*
He realizes his running seems to keep the worst of his depression at bay, but sometimes even the running is not enough. So he decides to visit the same counselor as Mary, a psychiatrist who listens with great intent to Abraham’s stories about running through years of self doubt and anxiety. “You’ve done very well, actually,” the counselor tells him. “But it doesn’t have to be this hard. And it’s not your fault, you know. It’s all about brain chemistry. You’re obviously a bright young man. We just need to put some air in your tires.”
Abraham smiles. Air in your tires. Wings on your feet. It all works for him.
Mary and Abraham Lincoln
Mary and Abraham get married in a June wedding. She now works as a teacher and Abe has but a year left in his law school program. They learn to communicate their troubles together and Abraham actually gets Mary to join him on a bike. They take rides together along the river in their university town.
While riding and running, Abraham thinks he can see into the future sometimes, to a time when they have children and he works as a lawyer, or something more.
His proclamation to Mary is that he really never has been happier. The two know how to cope even when the hard times hit, as they inevitably do. For everyone who walks, runs or rides on God’s green earth must course their own path, and none are perfectly smooth.
So run on, Abraham and Mary, run on.
*”No element of his personality was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious melancholy.” This was stated by a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, Henry C. Whitney.