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.
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.
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.