Wissot: In life’s race, coming close to the cigar is motivation to try again (column)
What are the origins for the phrase “close but no cigar?“ The best guess is that it originates from the mid-20th century when fairground stalls used to give out cigars as prizes.
Whatever its origins, all of us have experienced “close but no cigar“ moments in our lives.
I had my own moment 10 years ago. I was 64 at the time and preparing to run a race I had dreamed of completing for many years. The race is called the Comrades Marathon. It has taken place in South Africa since 1921. It is the second-oldest road race in the world, after the fabled Boston Marathon, which began in 1897. But unlike Boston, which is a “mere“ 26.2-mile marathon, Comrades is more than two times longer and requires each entrant to cover 56 miles in 12 hours or less.
There are a number of features unique to the race. The name Comrades naturally extends to a feeling of camaraderie among the runners. Rather than competitors, entrants see themselves as comrades in running shorts. The goal of Comrades is to make sure as many runners as possible cross the finish line. Leave no runner behind is the race’s motto.
In 2007, that motto was taken to extreme limits after a runner collapsed close to the finish and some of his running comrades, thinking he was suffering from exhaustion, picked him up and carried him across the line. It was only afterward that doctors who came to his aid discovered that he had died before crossing the line.
The following year, race officials instituted a rule stating that you had to be alive when you crossed the finish line. Dead runners would not be given credit for completing the race.
Picky. Picky. Picky.
Along the 56-mile route from the highland town of Pietermaritzburg to the seaside city of Durban, you encounter cheering spectators (it’s a national holiday in South Africa) barbecuing and drinking alcoholic beverages, much like on the Fourth of July here. My comrades and I also had to deal with running up and down five massive hills in 80-degree temperatures and high humidity.
I won’t bore you with any more unnecessary details but instead cut to the chase. Two miles from the finish line, with the street lights of Durban clearly in view, I cramped badly. I tried to hobble my way to the finish line but a race official interceded and told me to get into a “sag van“ for runners who were not likely to finish under the 12-hour time limit.
I tried to argue with him and was informed I could either choose the sag van or a police van.
I wisely chose the sag van.
I don’t recall a time in my life where I felt so devastated and miserable. To travel 10,000 miles from Denver to Durban, run 54 Miles, and then fail to finish was almost more than I could bear.
I reached for that “cigar“ but couldn’t quite grab it.
I blocked the race completely from my mind for four months, until I impulsively registered a day before the 2010 race deadline. I realized that trying to accomplish what I’d failed to previously achieve could only eliminate the bitter taste of failure.
The following June my wife and I traveled the 10,000 miles again to run the two miles I hadn’t run the year before.
I’m happy to report that I succeeded, finishing the race with a whopping 13 minutes to spare. I crossed the finish line totally elated and promptly vomited. I followed that spectacle by collapsing to the ground before being carried on a stretcher to the medical tent.
Two hours and three IVs later, I felt reborn.
The memory of that day, which I still carry with me, is not what you might expect, given that I managed to finish the race. What resonates most is the pride I still feel in my decision to try a second time to run the race — knowing full well I could fail again.
That is the “cigar“ I smoke today.
Jay Wissot is a resident of Denver and Vail. Email him at email@example.com.