Leaders Never Leave Their Wingman

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It was a funny scene in Top Gun when Iceman (Nick “Goose” Bradshaw – Anthony Edwards) told Maverick (Pete “Maverick Mitchell” – Tom Cruise), “You can be my wingman any time.”

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And then Iceman responded, “You can be mine.” I think that was the first time I learned what a wingman was, thanks to that 1986 movie. While I never forgot that scene, I didn’t learn the lesson back in 1986. It took a lot longer for me to internalize what it means to be a wingman, to be that partner in crime, to be that staunch supporter of another.

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In the end of September, I became that wingman to one of my teammates while running the San Jose Rock and Roll Half Marathon. I’d had a rough week. Rough? Probably not the right word. Let’s try challenging, emotional, gut-wrenching, draining…I’ll stop there. I had no business running that day, as my hydration, sleep and eating patterns of the week before would have received me an abrupt lecture from any of my doctors and a clear directive to spend two days in bed.

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But I showed up anyway….because I had made a commitment. A group of six of my Run365 marathon teammates were with me at the start, each of us poised to pound 13.1 miles of downtown San Jose streets. My streets. My neighborhood. With my people.

As we approached mile three, it was no surprise that I was struggling. I was drained. But so was my teammate, Michelle. We both made a pact as we drank Nuun and popped salt tablets around mile three – we stick together. She was my wingman. I was hers.

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Over the next eight or nine miles, it became obvious that I was having a pretty good, consistent run. And Michelle was not. I watched her form, listened to her breathing, and took in all the signs I could as we ran side by side, mile after mile. As we came down that last stretch, her words said nothing. Her body told me she was done and my mind raced as I processed the ways I could help her, in whatever might happen in those last 50 yards or so.

While she hadn’t realized it, probably out of denial, I did. Her body was done. Her breathing said it all. And as we celebrated the crossing of the finish line, our hands were held up in the air, holding hands, Garmins clicked off….and down she went. I was prepared. I was her wing man. I had already eyed the wheelchair seconds before, knowing that medical assistance was in her immediate future. As I held her up while the chair was wheeled over and nurses ran to her rescue, I had done my job. I was there that day to be her wingman. While our pace wasn’t what we would have liked, we were a team. Michelle and me. We laughed about it in the first aid tent, joined by two teammates who ran the race they came to run that day. The race Michelle and I ran? It wasn’t what we both expected when we awoke, but it was a special day for us both. Neither of us quit on the other.

I saw more of this, let’s call it leadership, at the Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles on Saturday, February 13th. The women’s race was competitive with many former Olympic marathoners aiming for their 2nd, 3rd and even 4th trips. Four years ago in the trials, runner Amy Cragg finished in that every-so-painful 4th spot, just outside of qualifying for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. For four years, Cragg trained and dreamed. Dreamed and trained.

For the last few years, Cragg trained side by side US Olympic marathoner Shalane Flanagan, record holder of world and national records, a 10th place finish in the 2012 Olympics and bronze medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea at the 10,000 meter distance. As the Olympic trails in Los Angeles approached, both women talked of how they wanted to head to the Olympics together, teammates in a very special way, and how devasted they would be if one made it and the other didn’t.

On those Los Angeles streets, they ran side by side as they had done for years in training. Close to mile 23 it became apparent that Flanagan was struggling. Perhaps it was the 75 degree Southern California heat. Perhaps it was just one of those days when you reach deep down and can’t quite pull out a 100% effort. For a few miles there, it was Cragg, Flanagan’s wingman, who wouldn’t leave her.

The television coverage caught it time and time again….Cragg coaxing on her teammate. Craggcoaching Flanagan.Cragg not letting her drop back. And when she knew her teammate could pull off the much needed third place finish to secure that trip to Rio, Cragg turned it on and ran the race of her life and won the Olympic trials. But she was there for her teammate. She was the wingman.

And when Flanagan crossed the finish, there was Cragg to catch her when her body said it had been a tough fight. It was Cragg who caught her. Her wingman was back at her side.

Who is your wingman? Will you be there when she needs you? You owe it to yourself. And to her.And to countless other women who need a great wingman.