When someone says ‘Give me 20′ or ’30’ for that matter, he gives it new meaning, routinely getting up anywhere between 2am and 4am, and gets it done. In miles. It is not uncommon for Solomon MOrris Whitfield to run a marathon type distance before going to work. He has heard it and trust me, he is not nuts. Just an ultra runner.
During our recent conversation, it came to me. ‘MO, you ran 2014 miles (before you do the math in your head, that is an average of 167 miles a month, and 5.5 miles per day) the year we met.’ At the time I had never run more than a handful of miles, consecutively. Not that the belief or desire to was there anyway. What we did know is that we connected, both of us were single dads at the time, born in the American Midwest, and I had started to train for my first half marathon in Richmond, Virginia. Our story is one of many others where an unfortunate tragedy brings people together.
At the intersection of tragedy and friendship, our paths crossed
MO and I connected through Meg’s Miles, a running group and compassionate community brought together by tragedy. Meg Menzies was an elite runner and was out on a training run for the Boston Marathon on January 13, 2014 when she was killed by a drunk driver. Her still pictures still move hearts. MO and I shared many miles together (on and off the road) and as we got to know each other, learned how much we had in common. We were single dads and now as husbands, we are always willing to be there for one another and share life lessons and matters of the heart conversations.
As the first conversation for this blog, I knew MO would be an inspiring story to share to help us all to carry each other as we look at ourselves to encourage us to Be MOre and, if you so desire, Run MOre too.
So you all know, when it comes to knowing MO, it’s the M.O. that you always capitalize the MO!
“Fearlessness means taking the first step, even when you don’t know where it will take you. It means being driven by a higher purpose, rather than by applause. It means knowing that you reveal your character when you stand apart, more than when you stand with the crowd.” (Chadwick Boseman)
First experience with Racism, closed curtains and closed minds
MO is one of three kids, born to Solomon and Brenda Whitfield in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has a twin brother (Julius) and sister (Crystal) who is seven years older. His memories of Michigan are vague as the family moved to the Washington, DC area when he was six years old and settled in Springfield, Virginia.
MO (far right) with his twin brother Julius, sister Crystal, and parents Solomon and Brenda Whitfield
His parents encouraged friendships no matter who, where from, or neighborhood. MO went to Robert E. Lee High School, and being black and at a school named after a Confederate General, it did not bother him as one would expect. The school was quite diverse with many ethnicities and religions, and he was on the track team as a sprinter. His best friend was Indian, and having a mother who was multiracial (Black, White, and Cherokee Indian) MO understood who he was.
When I asked about his first experience with racism, he remembered it clearly; pain always prompts memories to the surface. He was 15 and was asked to the Sadie Hawkins dance, where girls do the asking. His date (Catheney) was Asian and when he picked her up, his date’s Mom said to her daughter ‘I need to talk to you when you get home.’ She was under the impression that she would be bringing home someone of her same ethnicity and advised her daughter that she should not be dating MO, and needs to shoot higher.
As you can imagine, MO was hurt and confused; made him feel that being black was negative though he is nice, got good grades, and is always. respectful to others.
By the way, Solomon and Brenda, you raised a wonderful son.
MO and Catheney continued dating anyway, however it came at a cost of emotional turmoil. They could not be in front of her parents, and he recalled that she would cry everyday at MO’s house as she did not see MO as black, she saw him as we all do that know him, as MO. For Senior Prom, they met at MO’s house for pictures as her parents refused to bring her; when he went to pick her up she was forced to wait outside and her parents had the curtains closed. When it came time for the after party, MO took her home to change, and after waiting 30 minutes, she did not come back out. Curtains closed, again. Her family viewed MO as inferior, and even writing this saddens, hurts, and makes me angry all at the same time.
Many of us have treasured memories of our high school graduations. For MO, it is bittersweet. He and Catheney were not allowed to speak or even acknowledge one another even though they dated most of their high school years. No hugs, or goodbyes. Her parents, with extended family there, did not want anyone to think she was with a black man. For MO’s parents, they would never put him in that position, and with his Mom having a multiracial background, race was not an issue when it came to who her son was around, ever.
“Hating skin color is contempt for God’s divine creative imagination. Honoring it is appreciation for conscious beautiful, love-inspired diversity.” (T.F. Hodge)
Justification Exhaustion, personal and professional
Off to James Madison University, and MO loved the four years spent there. He shared many of his friends made there were from the Middle East and he goes back to visit the campus with his family. I also have a son at JMU who loves it there as well.
As he came into adulthood and the working world, coupled with the introduction and now norm of social media, it is evident that racism still persists even though we all attempt to dismiss it easily. He is acutely aware that he always has to be on his best behavior because he is black, even when he has every reason to speak his mind, to put it politely.
For example, at work recently some of his colleagues were making fun of Juneteenth; again making him feel inferior. He shared with me that he has received racist Facebook messages, even some when he and his wife Leah started dating, which he ignores. The point, and something we all need to realize, is that it is incredibly exhausting to constantly feel the need to justify yourself and getting nowhere simply because of the skin color you were born with. It makes no sense whatsoever, yet MO understands this is something that is not inherent in anyone; it is taught and conditioned.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” (Nelson Mandela)
Being a biracial family, brought together and apart
MO and I met while we were single dads, and leaned on each other as we navigated those miles. We are ‘3am friends’ for each other, knowing that whatever time of the day or night, we are there.
Me and MO after a run
We are both married now and my wife Angela and I were grateful to be able to be with MO and Leah at their wedding in May 2018. He shared that Leah’s parents (Mom and Step Dad) have been very nice to him and welcoming, though her Mom was concerned about what others would say. However her Dad disowned Leah after she married MO, and he does feel to a certain extent some guilt as being the reason she does not have a relationship with her Dad anymore. Again, it is hard to understand yet this is what MO has had to live with and I admire how he rises above it all.
MO and Leah on their wedding day
MO also has two kids, MJ and Tate (12 and 10 years old respectively) and they are biracial; Leah adores them. He has strengthened their confidence by teaching them that they don’t have to choose which race to identify with, namely his or their Mother’s and that we respect and treat all as equals, and as for them it is more than fine to identify with both.
When talking with Leah and MO, I learn and grow as a person by becoming more aware and understanding. It has also prompted me to do something, namely have uncomfortable yet heart driven conversations that bring us together.
MO, Leah, MJ, and Tate
Always being mindful of situations, and is he still moving
We had dinner with them earlier this summer, and Leah shared that with MO taking on the challenging of running virtually back and forth across Tennessee (1,243 miles over 4 months), he was up way before dawn kicking asphalt. She would often be up anyway checking his Garmin signal to make sure he is still moving, as a black man running at night may bring unwanted attention.
MO is always having to be mindful of where he is at, at all times, including his own neighborhood. Recently he saw that his neighbors recycling containers had not been taken up from the street and Leah suggested the neighborly thing and take them up for them. He would have welcomed it however he knows if someone sees him do it, they may call the police seeing a black man going up near a house with empty containers. Having to constantly think through these scenarios is something MO is used to, and should not have to be subjected to it. He also knows it has opened his wife’s eyes and it directly impacts her and them as a couple.
So, what it is about race from through MO’s eyes that could help us understand more and bring us together?
MO shared that it is apparent that people do not take the time to understand where each other are coming from with an intent to listen rather than reply. He noted it is easy to call someone a racist and not realize that we all are a product of our environments to a large degree and racism is something that has been taught and conditioned. It can be undone as well, as Nelson Mandela has exemplified. Also, apprehension or fear of the unknown is not racism however, that said, we should not wait until something such as racism directly impacts us to speak out against it.
It is becoming evident that it is more about picking sides rather than having honest conversations, formulating your own opinion, and recognizing that differences are a good thing. BLM (Black Lives Matter) is a message MO agrees with, however he sees that the movement causes division and friction where one has to pick sides. It should not have to be that way. A better position for change is one of inclusiveness, for example it should not be blue lives vs. black lives matter. One can be respectful of both.
I have one of MO’s ‘Run MO’ running shirts, and on the back is a statement that serves him well, and us all, “get comfortable being uncomfortable.” That is what long distance running involves, and is transcending.
What this also says to me is that we should seek discomfort out of our comfort zones as we come together to be in a place of inclusiveness for change.
It involves having heart driven conversations, not with the intent to change minds, rather to understand, share experiences, and improve ourselves. We all are dispositioned to be stuck in our ways, and conversations with an intent to listen sincerely are often lacking, as we are prone to shut down others (many times using emojis and memes) and their line of thinking that does not necessarily line up with our own.
How a Decision to Run a 1 Miler became a 100 miler
It was July 2011, and MO realized that his life was one of inconsistency. Here, there, and everywhere from college through his now adult life as a dad friend, and family member. He ran track in high school and enjoyed the challenge of it, and how it served as mind cleanse. He got up that July day and went for a one mile run, and he was out of gas at the end of it. That was just the beginning of him proving to himself that he could be consistent at something where he did not need to rely on others. It served as a foundation to other aspects of his life.
Now, he has done that one miler 100 times, an 100 miler just last year. Numerous marathons, half marathons, and ultras are the norm. He just completed 1,243 miles over 4 months (over 10 miles per day average). There is no mystery to what he is up to before breakfast. In fact, I know if I try to get in touch with him after 8pm or so, forget it. Everyday, he is up early and out the door.
What has that one decision to go for a run in July 2011 meant? He has learned that in order to be passionate, you have to be consistent; can’t make excuses for yourself; need to be willing to adjust to changes in life; accept criticisms and shortcomings; and just show up everyday. Through his decision to keep running his mindset has toughened, he deals with challenges, setback, and goals with focus and leads through action and example, not words. It is not about having to do it, and all about believing in himself (and ourselves) that we can do it. You choose the ‘it’ you’re presently in or going to do.
Being inspired by the everyday, and it’s contagious. Instead of following who and what people consider famous, why not follow our own hearts? That is what Danny O’Donoghue did when he went to support a marathon and witnessed people from all walks of life supporting cancer awareness and was inspired by them going for 26.2. The elite athletes get the recognition, yet what we need to realize is that we all can achieve amazing and worthwhile goals, embracing all our differences and experiences to get there.
We can all follow MO’s lead, by starting inside ourselves to discover and build strength, not according to other’s expectations, rather to prove it to ourselves. As for Danny O’Donoghue, he is lead singer for a band called The Script, and wrote this song and story from his experience at that marathon to remind us all to stop trying to be famous for the sake of it, be you, and do something great.
That is Hall of Fame speech material.
Reminds me of you and thanks for sharing your life with us MO, and reminding us that we all #bleedasone.