I ran 13.1 miles a couple of Sundays ago for fun. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say for “fun.” It had been nine years since I’d last run a half marathon, and let me tell you, there’s a big difference between running 13 miles at age 36 and running 13 miles at age 45. Suffice to say, there was more ibuprofen involved this time around.
I was nervous about the race. Every training run I’d done, all the way up to the 12-miler two weeks before, had been what my husband optimistically calls “a character builder.” None of them was easy. Most had involved cursing and audible groaning. I didn’t feel ready. I thought about bailing on the race entirely. After all, I reasoned, I’d done the hard part; I’d done the training.
Add to that the fact that it wasn’t a great day for a race. When we awoke at 5 a.m., it was already drizzling, and by the time we left the house to drive downtown for the 7 a.m. start, the rain was falling steadily. The wind gusted upwards of 20 mph, and it was bone-chillingly damp, the kind of damp that takes up residence deep in your muscles and bones and decides to camp out there awhile.
Brad cut a hole in a giant black trash bag for me to slip over my head, and I laughed when I saw it. In nine years we’ve witnessed the invention of the Fitbit, Stinger Energy Chews, and Gel Cushioning Systems, and yet the giant black garbage bag is still the best we can do when comes to rain protection? “What is this, 1970?” I mocked as we stood in the kitchen. “I am not wearing a garbage bag.”
Fast forward one hour. I’m standing at the starting line clad in a giant black garbage bag.
The race went fine. I didn’t break any personal records, but I didn’t intend to. In spite of the wind gusts and the incessant drizzle and the squishy sneakers and the chafing you do not want me to talk about believe me, I had fun — fun without quotation marks — and it was all because of a single factor:
The spectators, the people who lined the sidewalks in the most foul weather imaginable just to encourage friends and loved ones and 10,000 smelly, trash-bag-clad strangers, made all the difference. Every time I heard my name called from the curb my heart leapt. Those smiling faces and words of encouragement from friends and strangers alike kept me going, mile after drizzly, gusty mile.
I want to remember the 2016 Lincoln Half Marathon, not just because I ran it after a nine-year hiatus, but because of what I saw and experienced along the route that day. I benefitted first-hand from the kindness of strangers: the hundreds of volunteers handing out cups of water and Gatorade; the family members holding homemade signs, markered letters bleeding in the rain; the cowbell ringers; the quiet but resolute clappers; the accordion player with his instrument sheathed in plastic; the guitar players rocking out under the gas station overhang.
I want to remember them so that I can remember to be that person on the sidelines for someone else.
I don’t need to tell you that life is hard, that sometimes it all feels like one, long, never-ending, uphill marathon in the rain and the cold and the wind. But we can help make the way a tiny bit easier for the person running that hard race. Each of us is offered many opportunities to be that steady encourager on the sidelines — cheering, supporting, holding out the cup of water, running alongside.
Each of us has the chance to be the person who says to another: I see you. I see you braced against the wind. I see you struggling uphill. I see you fighting for every step. I’m yelling your name. I’m waving wildly. I believe in you. You can do this.
When I crossed the finish line that Sunday morning, a volunteer slipped a ribboned medal over my head. I was still breathing hard, wiping rainwater from my eyes, distracted and dazed and wondering where the free bagels were. Suddenly, in the midst of the confusion, I heard my name again.
“Michelle! Michelle! Congratulations! You did great!” It was the volunteer who had just slipped the medal around my neck. Her name is Tani. I’d been a guest at her book club a few months before, but in my dazed, endorphinized, bagel-focused state after the race, I hadn’t recognized her. She recognized me, though, even in spite of my drowned-rat hair. We hugged and snapped a photo with her phone right there at the finish line, both of us bedraggled and soaked to the bone. We both couldn’t stop smiling.
I had run the race, but it was the encouragers who had carried me along, right up to the very end.