The Real Heroes of the Marathon

For the past two years I’ve spectated at our city’s largest race, the Dallas White Rock Marathon. As a marathoner myself, I love cheering on the runners and supporting them at mile 21, which coincides with a significant uphill climb from a long flat stretch around White Rock Lake. I get to see a lot of friends I’ve trained with through the years and help them out with words of encouragement, but most of the faces who run by are strangers who happen to share my love of running. Out of everyone I see on marathon day, the runners who touch my heart the most, and remind me what running is truly all about, are the ones at the very back of the pack. To me, they are the real heroes of the marathon.

I love watching the elites fly by. Their focused intensity and the beauty of their running form always leave me speechless. I know I will never run that fast, and will never know what it feels like to be the first person to break the tape at a race that large. I cheer for them, but they are so completely centered on their running they rarely look over. Seeing them glide by reminds me how beautiful the human body is performing at the apex of conditioning and training.

The faster runners who follow them are no less awe-inspiring. No matter how talented or lucky they are to be born with the right combination of muscles, strength, and mental focus to be as fast as they are, I also know they train a lot harder than I do. Most work full-time jobs, have families and responsibilities, and still manage to train seriously enough to win or place in their age groups.

The four hour pace group is always a great sight, mainly because so many of us want to be in that group, especially the last six miles of the marathon. It’s usually a large group, and a lot of the runners are starting to show the strain of keeping the pace for over twenty miles. For those who had aspirations of a 3:50 or faster finish, the dream is starting to fade, and they know they won’t be able to hold on much longer, especially on the long climb up from the lake. For others, who’ve trained on hills and know the course well, they’ve managed to dig deep enough to know how close they are to realizing their dream of a sub four hour marathon, and that nothing will stop them. I know that look in their eyes, and I cheer them on by yelling that they’re strong, and well-trained, and that they know what to do.

This is from Route 66, mile 24. I didn’t take photos at White Rock because of the weather.

Gradually, there are a few runners who decide to walk up the hill, then more and more appear. These are the runners who’ve given everything they had, and they hit the wall hard. Some smile and shake their heads as they walk past, and I know they’ll probably find that last ounce of strength to get them across the finish line. Others avoid my eyes as they walk past and act as if my words of encouragement are not meant for them, and I know exactly how they feel. If you’ve ever run more than one marathon, chances are you’ve been there, too, beating yourself up and feeling like you’ve let yourself and everyone else down. A few people look me straight in the eye with so much disappointment on their faces, so defeated, all I can say to them is, “I know, I know . . .” and “you can do this.”

This year’s marathon had the worst conditions I can remember in a long time, with temperatures in the low 40’s, wind, and intermittent rain. After training through the hottest summer on record, the weather was the complete opposite of what most Texas runners had to contend with. The faster runners were better able to handle the conditions, mainly because their steady pace kept their body temperatures relatively stable. The less fast runners suffered a lot, but it was the walkers who took the full brunt of the freezing rain.

After the 4:30 pace group passes a lot of runners start to look just plain miserable. The cold rain is unrelenting, and four and a half hours is a long time to be wet and cold. One girl walks past crying and shivering, her pink gloved hands covering her mouth. Her eyes speak volumes. I tell her to just keep moving. Another woman stops and asks me something I can’t understand because her lips are frozen, and she hands me a GU packet with teeth marks, and I open it for her. A man runs past and hands me a soaking wet knit cap, telling me to wash it and take it home.

The runners start to become more appreciative of my cheering. I stand alone on the hill, sometimes sounding like a drill sergeant, telling the runners that they’re FIGHTERS or they wouldn’t be here today, that they trained through the hottest summer on record, when it was 105 degrees, day after day, mile after mile, and they’re STRONG enough to get up that hill. I yell and tell them how they’ve battled all day long through the cold rain, they battled through the summer of hell, and that after this day they’re going to know EXACTLY what they’re made of. I tell them it’s time to dig deep, time to turn off the brain and just keep going. (Yes, I really do say all that stuff. Other spectators walking by look at me like I’m nuts, smiling and wondering who the heck I am.)

The pace gets a little slower and I start to see more runners in Team in Training shirts. My chant of “You’re FIGHTERS or you wouldn’t be here today!” seems to really hit a nerve with certain groups of the less fast women. They raise their arms and cheer and take off up the hill, telling themselves, “Yeah, we’re FIGHTERS!” Some people come over to give me high fives, one man calls me Sunshine, another tells me he’ll never forget me. Some walkers actually start running when they hear me cheering, and I feel like a proud coach, goading everyone on to victory. I feel such a bond with these back of the pack runners, and I realize I may be getting more out of being here today than they are.

So many people thank me for being there, for coming out to support them, and I tell them I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for them. I think about yesterday, how Michael and I got up at 4am to drive to Houston for a touch rugby tournament and decided to drive back the same day just so we could help out at the marathon. I also think about how I almost stayed home, not wanting to brave the elements, but feeling guilty and knowing at the last minute that I needed to give back, to repay all those who’ve ever taken the time to cheer me on in a marathon. I can’t imagine missing any of this.

Another photo from Route 66 at mile 24.

The spectators down on the corner have thinned out, the five hour group has passed, but people are still running. The mood has changed. There are still many runners who are struggling and look completely spent, but many are also upbeat and determined to finish. I have to convince a few of the walkers that it’s okay, all they have to do is just keep going, they’re doing great. It’s as if they need some confirmation that it’s okay not to reach your time goal, that it’s really all about crossing the finish line and not how fast you get there.

The five thirty group passes, and everyone is laughing and happy that someone is still on the course, cheering them on. I tell them how amazing they are, how they are such an inspiration to everyone out here today, and they thank me profusely. I love their spirit, how they seem to revel in the bad weather and the challenges they’ve overcome. I look around and see that I really am the only person still standing on the hill, and think what a shame it is that people don’t hang around for these last heroes of the marathon.

When I run a marathon I almost always want to run it faster than the one before. These people in the back are here to finish. For them, it’s all about the journey that got them there, and the experience of the race itself. They are proving something to themselves and their families. Even though most of them are walking, they are still marathoners, and I call them that as I cheer them on. With frozen fingers and toes, I finally walk down the hill to the mile 20.5 water stop where Michael is helping out to cheer on the very last marathoners. I run into my friend Serena, a triathlete running her first marathon, who is running with another friend, Stacy. They are cold and miserable, and need hugs, but they’re still smiling and determined to finish strong.

And still they come, stragglers in ones and twos, most walking, some shuffling along at a steady running pace. These are the people who bring tears to my eyes. Their resolve to finish is beyond inspiring–it’s life changing, even to those who are only watching. I remember reading a comment by Ryan Hall, that he couldn’t imagine being on his feet for four hours or longer in a marathoner. Being one of those persons myself, I think this is my equivalent, that I can’t imagine walking 26.2 miles, or running it in five and a half or six hours. I remember how sore I was the day I walked six miles down to the lake and back, and shake my head at the thought of walking in the freezing rain through an entire day’s marathon.

The water stop is slowly dismantled, but water and Gatorade are left out for those who need it. One of the walkers asks if he can have some of my orange juice (it’s actually a mimosa), and I wonder if I should tell him there’s something special in the drink. He says it will help him get up the hill, and I agree. A young guy runs up and yells, “I’m glad you guys didn’t forget about me!” smiling and laughing, and I could almost bet he’ll be back next year, with a huge PR.

Another man shuffles up just as Michael is lowering the Start sign. He looks up, confused, and asks me why it says Start. I tell him for most runners the last six miles are the hardest, and some say it’s where the marathon truly begins. I tell him he’s at mile 20.5 and he nods and slowly shuffles off. I’m not sure he really understood anything I was trying to tell him.

Finally, around 2:30pm, the last three marathoners come through, followed by two police cars. Two people walk ahead together, the other is an older woman. Her husband walks beside her in street clothes and a cowboy hat, larger than life and talking nonstop. He’s like General Patton gathering supplies, running over and asking if he can have some orange juice for his wife. I bring over the entire jug and he asks if I can walk with them. He has three cups of Gatorade in his hands, and drains them as we walk and talk. He tells me his wife is from Oklahoma, and this is her first marathon. He jumped out of his car when he saw her pass and decided to walk the last six miles or so with her. He takes a swig of the “orange juice” and asks why it tastes so much better than the Gatorade. I decide to come clean and tell him it’s actually spiked with something, and he turns to his wife to ask if that’s okay. He’s trying to give the other two marathoners some of the orange juice as I pull away with the empty jug. I kind of wish I could keep walking with them, all the way to the finish line. I try to imagine what it must feel like to know you are the very last  person in a marathon. As I watch the woman from Oklahoma and her husband, I think it must be a pretty great feeling indeed.

I loved it when Lance Armstrong, after running his first marathon a few years ago, said that it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. I have to admit it’s somewhat satisfying when one of the world’s best athletes is humbled by your chosen sport. My friend Serena, who swore she would never do a marathon, said afterwards, “I would rather do a half Ironman, a 100K bike race, or a 100 mile bike ride any day. The marathon was twice as hard as any of these.” She’s a super athlete herself–and I doubt it will be her last marathon.

In the past, I’ve heard faster, more competitive runners say disparaging things about the walkers and slowest runners, saying they’re not “real” runners and only clog up the course, but to me they epitomize what the marathon truly stands for. If I keep running into very old age, I know that one day I will be one of those very back of the pack marathoners. I might even be the last one to cross the finish line. Until then, I’ll let the real heroes of the marathon forge the path, in their own way, at their own speed. I’d be honored to run, walk, or shuffle in their footsteps.

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15 comments

  1. Ashok

    Angela, beautifully written, and more importantly, a huge thank you for being there, cheering till the end. I ran this one, and at first I thought that this time, because of the weather, the spectators were mostly there to cheer their one family member or friend, and not the general runner population. But, as crazy as I was to run in this weather, I was equally amazed with the spectators – including the bundled up little kids, I loved giving high fives to the little kids.

    This was the toughest thing I have ever done – the cold wind, incessant rain, cold temperatures for 4+ hrs was hard. What amazed me was that all the runners just showed up in these conditions, no whining, and ploughed through the adverse conditions. Every one of them, and like you so eloquently described, the runners who endure long are the real heroes.

    I was quite heads down, whether it was to watch out for the puddles, or to observe the rain trickle down the rim of my hat and drip down the side. I totally relate to your comment about faintly acknowledging a cheer with a heads down smile and a weak but defiant fist or a thumbs up. One of the thoughts going through my mind during the long race was that I ought to take every opportunity to come out and cheer runners. Your experience has certainly inspired me to do that.

    Ashok

    • Run Nature

      Thank you, Ashok. Huge congratulations on running through those horrible conditions. I can only imagine how tough it must have been.

      I always love spectating at marathons, especially since I know how hard it is. When I run a marathon I’m usually too zonked out to always acknowledge or even notice the people cheering on the sidelines. As a spectator, I’m always amazed when the runners thank me for being there–when they’re the ones doing all the hard work, especially the ones plugging away at the back of the pack. My favorite place to stand is mile 25. That last mile is always the hardest for me.

  2. Dawn Hosking

    Angela,

    I am so glad I got this article and will share it with my friends. I saw you at mile 21 and told my running buddies that it was you standing there. My friend said that she saw a lot of people that day that looked like people she knew but they were out of state so it could not have been them. So we chalked it up to everyone has a twin somewhere.
    Just seeing the people I know running or on the side spectating was so helpful because I cried tears of joy. One of my friends that helped run me in said she is next to run the marathon and I said do not torture yourself like this. White Rock was so hard for me,if the distance was not a challenge enough,it was the worst conditions,and then my overall aversion to the lake gave me paralyzing anxiety in training.
    I have to say that I am ok with my time and was disappointed til today. To be out there for over 5 hours I can’t say I would have the strength to finish. 4 hours and 51 minutes was enough of a beating. Thank you for putting it in perspective for me. Dawn

    • Run Nature

      Dawn, I wish I had recognized you when you passed by. Everyone was so bundled up that day, I know I missed a lot of friends.

      I’m so proud of you for finishing in that horrible weather! I’ve run marathons in humidity, warm temps, and strong winds, but never a cold rain. Marathons are so hard. Try not to be too disappointed in your time, especially when it was so tough. I truly believe it’s more about persevering and finishing than running a PR. Plus, you can always try again if you want! Thanks so much for reading. Let’s run together sometime!

  3. Evelyn Burleson

    Bryan, thanks for sending the article along and sharing your thoughts about reducing your time almost to 4 hours…just a few minutes off. Wow. You did not even mention the difficulty of running up the much talked about hill. I guess The Kauailast Marathon last September was worth it! Glad you did not end up with your contacts in the back of your eyes the last mile and a half like at Kauai So wish I could have been there to see you and the other brave marathoners become finishers one more time, some for the first time and some will make it the next time! I am so proud of you!

  4. A Wanderer

    You are so right about the real heroes. I still remember watching the last runner come thru the finish line at the Prague Marathon a few years ago and thinking if he can do that, I can at least try running a longer race.

    I have also seen those super fast people be exceedingly rude to slower runners (and walkers too) and wonder if they realize just how rude they are being or if they even care. I will confess being frustrated at the start of a race when walkers don’t line up with an appropriate pace group and then walk 3 or more abreast but there is no need to yell or name call. Last summer I ran in a half that merged with the full marathoners midway and I remember several marathoners yelling profanities at some of the half marathon people (who were probably running at a 9 min pace) who the marathoners perceived as being in their way. I recall thinking there was no way I’d run a marathon if those were the type of people I’d be running with…..which I realize is an over-generalization.

    Volunteers are equally wonderful and inspirational. I am always excited to see volunteers cheering, handing out water or just being there on the sidelines. I think they are the ones who really make or break an event. Every time I see a volunteer, I try to say thank you (although I know I don’t as much as I should) and think to myself that I need to make more of effort to join them some time….Maybe that will be one of my new year goals.

    The White Rock runners/walkers are lucky to have people like you there to support them!

    • Run Nature

      I’ve gotten aggravated at 5K’s before with walkers and strollers, dogs, or walking four abreast in the middle of the road, but it’s everyone’s race. I think a lot of marathoners are so focused on running a PR that they sometimes forget that.

      In my first marathon, which was also White Rock, I remember the people at the mile 24 water stop looking like angels, yelling encouragement and support, and I knew I would never forget what a difference they made for me. Spectating and cheering at someone else’s marathon is just a very small way to give back a little of what I got that day. And I really, truly love being so inspired by those people pushing through at the end of the marathon. I feel like I’m the one who’s being given a gift just by watching them run and struggle past.

  5. Kristin

    Was so great to see you out there, almost didn’t recognize you without Hari! This was the frist year I was actually feeling good and powered through the hills and on to a PR. It must have been your good vibes! (along with wanting to just get out of the weather!)You guys were also huge heros that day by braving the elements to stand around. At least we were creating heat by running.

    • Run Nature

      Congrats on making it through the hills and on to a PR! That’s awesome, especially in that weather! Standing around on the side of the hill yelling and screaming was a LOT easier than running that marathon. I think the bad weather kept Hari home this year.

  6. Raven

    Angela, I was one of those last runners, who made it through this race. The weather was an ass kicker, but we survived. My speed plummeted after mile 14-15 due to foot pain and hamstring tightness. I was so thankful to see people out there still cheering us on. It was the boost I needed. I remember seeing the start sign being brought down, and I wondered what it was that I just missed.

    Thank you again for being out there!

    • Run Nature

      Raven, too bad we didn’t recognize each other at the Start sign. I would’ve run with you a bit! Everyone was so bundled up it was easy to miss people I knew. Huge congrats on making it through the race. I can only imagine how tough it was, but you did it!!!!

  7. Kim

    I’ve read and re-read this blog many times over the last year and I have to say thank you! Thank you for so eloquently depicting the range of emotions of a marathon. I completed my first full marathon in 2010 with a less than ideal finish time, walking a great deal more than I had ever imagined. I don’t even really look back confidently to say ‘I ran a marathon’ – since I can’t hang my hat on that I really ‘ran’ it all. But the long of it is i I did it and finished. It’s taken me a while to get over the mental angst of it all, and I am finally at a point that I am ready to take on my 2nd marathon. To me this is my redemption marathon, a race that I will take as it comes, be proud of myself and the journey and know that I am strong enough to do it and will not let it beat me.

    Thank you for helping to keep me focused and re-inspired with this blog!

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      Thanks so much, Kim, for your very kind words. I’m so excited for you and your second marathon! I think you are being way too hard on yourself for having to walk during your first marathon. It’s all about finishing, not how long it takes you to cross the finish line, especially for your first. First marathons are almost always harder than we think they will be. Just remember: no matter how you think you did, everyone gets the same medal. You kept going and you finished. That’s what counts.

      The longer I run the less I’m interested in how fast I am. Now I’m doing some trail running and taking walk breaks is completely acceptable. Things are more laid back and relaxed, and it’s made me appreciate running for its own sake. Maybe it’s a natural progression, but I don’t often feel like I have anything to prove. My running heroes are still people like you, people who keep coming back because they know they can do better. They don’t give up — and that’s so inspiring to me!

      Keep in touch and let me know how your race goes!

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