I begin this post with some consternation, some preamble, and a warning. In it, I relay events that I witnessed this weekend while participating in a local 5k event. Don’t worry, it is not another boring post about running; the race is just the setting for a disturbing story about man’s inhumanity to man. It is a story about the callous disregard of some for their fellow man and it is a story of triumph. Fair warning, some of what I will relay is offensive but, alas, true.

Just a few days ago I saw online that there was an annual 5k down at the beach just minutes from my house. I planned to do a speed workout on Saturday and I thought this would be a good way to get my workout and have a little fun too. So I got up early Saturday and headed to the beach to sign up. I like to get to races early so I can beat the rush for signup and the porta-potties. I got signed up and was just hanging around. I began to see a number of distinctive green track uniforms in the crowd and I realized that “Rolling Thunder” was in the house.

If you are not aware of them, Rolling Thunder is a great group dedicated to providing challenged individuals with the opportunity to successfully participate in all levels of mainstream running, walking or wheelchair racing year round. I’ve seen the group at races before and I have always been really impressed, not only by the great work the group does, but by the incredible athletic talent displayed by so many of its members. I am routinely smoked by someone in a green tracksuit.

I did my warmup before the race and time was getting close to the start. I was standing around, just a few feet from the collected members of Rolling Thunder and just a few feet from a group of younger men and women whom I judged to be in their early thirties. They, in turn, were no more then 10 or so feet from Rolling Thunder.

Another man walked up to the people in their thirties while pinning his number to his shirt. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted all the green track uniforms and casually observed to his friends, “Oh, there must be a cross country team doing the race.”

A young woman in the group guffawed and said in full voice, “They’re not a cross-country team, they’re retards.”

I froze. My mind would not allow me to accept what I just heard. I looked at the members of Rolling Thunder as some of them must have heard it. I saw one of the organizers gently nudge some of the members away from the group, but she did this very casually. So casually in fact, I could not be sure that she heard it. And then I wondered, did I misunderstand?

I looked back at the the thirty-somethings, and no one else in the group reacted in any way. I must have mis-heard it. Nobody would do something like that, would they?

Just then, they called all of us over to the starting line. So I turned to make my way over as did the group of thirty-somethings. As they passed by me, the young woman who I thought made the remark was laughing. “I can’t believe you thought the retards were a cross-country team. That’s so funny.”

There was no chance I mis-heard it that time. I felt like I was punched in the stomach. I could not believe that any human being could be so openly condescending and disrespectful to people who had never done anything to her other than exist for the simple reason that they are different.

I was appalled. I was angry. And I was silent.

They passed by me in a moment and blended into the crowd of hundreds. I kicked myself. I should have said something. I always envisioned that, confronted with a situation like this in the wild, without a doubt my inner Atticus Finch would rule the day. Instead, I just stood there with my mouth wide open.

In an act of silly solidarity, I stood with many of the Rolling Thunder runners at the starting line, vainly hoping that this made up for my stunned silence in some small way. This is where I overheard another conversation. A young Rolling Thunder member was standing next to me and he was very excited to get going. I think his name was Brandon. A volunteer with RT said to him, “I hear that this year you want to run around 31 minutes, is that right?”

“Yup,” that’s right!” he said.

“Wow, that would be a big jump from last year. Right?”

“Yup. I ran with my mother last year.”

“But you think you can do it?”

“Yup.”

The gun went off and we ran. Brandon was right next to me the first half a mile, but then he got lost in the crowd.

I finished my race, grabbed some water, and headed back to the finish line to cheer on the other finishers. As I did, runner after runner in green track suits came across the finish line and I cheered for each and every one. And then I saw him, Brandon, coming down the straight-away. I cheered, loudly. When Brandon crossed the line, I looked at the clock and it was just over 30 minutes. Brandon set a personal record by a mile and beat his projected time by a minute. That is hard to do for any athlete and in my own way, I was really proud of him, and warmed myself momentarily in the glory of Brandon’s victory.

After a few moments, I turned my attention back to the runners still finishing. And then I saw her. The young woman who mocked those in green jerseys for no other reason than they were different from her, she finished behind a sea of them, including one young runner named Brandon. As she crossed the finish line, I thought of saying, “Ha. That’s so funny. You called them retards and they turned out to be a cross-country team. Ha. That’s so funny.”

But then I realized, I didn’t need to say anything to those thoughtless souls who would demean others after all. Rolling Thunder did all the talking that needed to be done.