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Triumph at the back of the pack

November 2022 – When he had to run a 23 km trail, Christian Petiteau, community leader of L’Arche Le Sénévé in France, made a poor performance on a sport’s level, but an amazing travel “in the landscapes of our humanity”. A real experience of transformation.

In 2017, I completed my first marathon in under four hours: I was more than a little proud of that. Five years later- and five extra kilos later- my preparation for the 23 km charity run needed to change. Not the same physical condition, not the same training… I knew that a tough challenge lay ahead of me. But what I didn’t know was that, running at the back of the peloton, I was going to make a new kind of journey.

First of all, the ‘sweeper’ bike. There it is, ever so discreet, like a quiet companion; but its very presence brings with it the permanent threat of abandonment. Then, once through the first five km, the old legs start to wobble. Already. Doubt creeps in: “If I give up, what will people say?” This is going to be long and arduous. The kilometers being such a long stretch, we reassure ourselves by laboriously counting the 100m markers…

And then the fear of failure gives way to a rueful acceptance: No, no records will not be broken this time. No, not many people will be waiting for me at the finish… Will I even make it? I resolve to give up on the idea of performance, and open my eyes to those around me: like me, they are struggling. I can’t help but be impressed by one woman in particular. She is seizing the opportunity to live this moment in a spirit of meditation, enraptured by the landscapes.

At the 15 km marker, we are still a long way off. The climbs and descents follow each other, one after another. Then, what joy to meet this old man with a smart idea: standing in front of his house, he offers cups of water to the souls in pain.

At 18 km, hope is reborn: only five km left. But then yet another uphill slog crushes that new-born hope. It’s time to play solidarity. As runners, we don’t know each other, but we recognize that we are in this together, facing a common challenge.

– Come on Claire, hang on in there! Only three km to go.
– Three km left?! I was told that ten minutes ago!
– Yes, but this time it’s really true!
– You swear?
– I swear!

We’re on the right track, like a story wanting a happy ending. We hadn’t reckoned on one final, deceitful and aggressive ascent. This route has no mercy on those who can’t take it anymore. “Come on, come on!” From the depths of my agony, I think of all those for whom I doing this race: This effort will not change the world, for sure, but it will perhaps change my relationship to the world, by putting me in synch with the people in this world who are suffering.

With only two km to go, no one is interested in us anymore. On the riverbank, we run into some tourists wondering what we are doing there, with our hi-vis jackets. We also meet some runners now peacefully ambling back home, their race long since finished.

Approaching the finish line, what joy to discover our close supporters still there waiting for us. Let’s never be in any doubt that, at the very end, there is always someone waiting for us.

I dedicate this race to the invisible members of our society, to those whose deep loneliness weighs heavily on them, turning their daily life into a long struggle, a catalogue of painful disappointments. Stuck at the tail end of the peloton, they live life off-centre. Yet astonishingly, it is with these everyday heroes that one can carve out new ways of winning.

Three hours to cover 23 km is not a great sporting performance, that’s for sure. But for roaming through the landscapes of our humanity, it is a pretty good time.

Christian Petiteau

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