One of the best parts of doing marathon support recently was the chance to see and encourage runners.
The aid station I where I was deployed was at mile 24.6. Runners arriving had only 1.6 miles to go. While some runners looked fresh, many were clearly tiring, and a handful were clearly in the ‘wheels coming off’ stage.
Everyone likes cheering for the front runners and the runners who are, in the common parlance, ‘crushing it’. It’s easy to admire the ones in front or soaring to victory. By the time the back of pack runners show up, everyone’s tired of cheering. No one cheers for every single one of 650 runners.
I cheered for the ones who were deep in the pain cave. I don’t care if they’re running at the front or at the ass end of the pack. Every runner pushing hard against their limit gets my encouragement regardless of whether they’re fast or slow.
One woman was clearly at the end of her endurance as she came down the trail. She had been pushing hard, and was trying to keep up the pressure, but the wheels were starting to come off. I could hear her coming; every stride as her right foot took the impact she gave out a little audible ‘hunh’.
She looked like she’d taken a fall - bloody right knee, dirty hands and elbows, and large dirt marks on her jersey and shorts. The pain was reflected on her face.
She had the 1000 yard stare of someone concentrating very hard on holding it together for just another 1.6 miles. As she got close I shouted out “You’re doing great! You look awesome!” She snapped out of the 1000 yard stare and looked directly at me. “I am not doing great. And I do not look awesome.”
As she eased up to take the cup of water I was holding out, I told her “You’re pushing hard on your limits. There’s no way to look better than that.” That got me a surprised flicker of a smile and a “Thanks.” And off she went, uttering a little ‘hunh’ every time she landed on that right foot.
“Hunh, hunh, hunh…”
She had 1.6 miles to go, something like 1000 strides to the mile. 1600 times she was going to grunt every time her right foot came down before she got to the finish line. And she was utterly committed to getting it done. I foolishly didn’t catch her bib number so I can’t even look to see how she finished. Whoever she is, regardless of whether she hit her time goal or not, she’s a grade A badass.
As soon as she was out of earshot, one of the other volunteers asked me if I thought that she was in pain. “Yep, quite a lot,” I said. And then the inevitable next question, “Why doesn’t she just stop?”
I said there was a difference between being comfortable and being happy. It’s pretty much the only answer I can think of when someone asks why someone would do something so uncomfortable.