There’s something about the crowd. It’s powerful, like a current that carries you along even when you think you can’t possibly find the strength to take another step. I’ve run three marathons and dozens of road races of varying lengths and if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that the crowd matters.
Small town 5Ks certainly have their merits, and their supporters. As you chug along, counting split times in your head and desperately trying to keep pace with the group in front of you, the dotted supporters and neighbors who poke their heads out of their doors when they see a gaggle of spandex-wearing strangers running by their house are great. They may toss you a wave, or a “woot,” as you struggle on your way, and it’s an unexpected delight.
Where the real power and force comes from, however, are the legit supporters. The fans. The people who have been standing outside for an hour bundled up, coffee in hand, waiting for a chance to see the crazy distance runners finally reach their corner. They are the people with the pompoms, and the noise makers. The people who wear their own souvenir t-shirt from last year’s race as proof that the race can be run and it’s worth the $50 entrance fee and dry-wick t-shirt.
They are the creative sign-makers who make you laugh when your mind is ripped in pieces by thoughts of cramps, pain, and quitting (“You’re running better than our Government!” “Your training lasted longer than Kim Kardashian’s marriage!” “I thought they said rum?!” “You’re almost there! Just Kidding, you still have 20 miles to go.”)
They are the little kids who reach out their hands, tiny fingers splayed, cheering encouraging words for everyone, no matter their age, speed, experience, or place in the pack.
I’ve heard it said that distance running is the only sport where everyone is cheered for, and there are no competing fans. It certainly feels true. The idea that “we’re all winners,” while maybe no consolation for the dozen or so elite athletes vying for prize money, has always been true for me. After all, whether it takes you three hours or six, you still ran 26.2 miles.
When you feel like your lungs are constricted, your feet are on fire, and you can’t overcome the sensation of dried sweat on your brow, you want to give up. You start to question your sanity and your preparation.
Were all of those early Saturday morning 18-mile runs really worth it? It doesn’t feel like they helped. Why did I pay money for this? Is this really worth a free t-shirt?
You realize you’re no longer able to do mental math (If this is mile 18, how many are left? 26.2 minus 18 is how many? Four? Six point three? Wait was that mile 18 or 19…?)
You’re breaking down, starting to rationalize with yourself that there is truly no shame in quitting. Running 19 miles is an accomplishment… or was it 18…?
Then you round a corner, and you see them. A whole block of people with signs and air horns, and thermos mugs that you know are not filled with coffee.
And…they’re…cheering. They’re thrilled to see you. They’re thrilled to see everyone, and they’re so confident in you. They are sure you’re going to make it. They are screaming words of encouragement that may as well be invocations.
“You’re almost there! Great job! You’re doing awesome! You’re gonna make it! Just keep going!”
Suddenly, in the passing of seconds—painful, pavement pounding, heart-throbbing, lung-burning seconds—you start to believe them. Maybe they’re right. After all, they’ve likely been out here for hours cheering on thousands of people. They certainly know best. Maybe you can keep going.
You see a group of little kids at the end of the block high-fiving everyone who passes by. It could be 100 yards to them, or it could be four miles, you no longer have any way to be sure, but you tell yourself to just run to those little kids. Then you can reassess if you still want to quit, or if you think you can keep going just a little while longer.
Suddenly, something unexpectedly miraculous happens. Someone in the crowd spots your name on your bib, and you hear your name. Your name.
“Great job, Jessica! Keep going!”
Thank you random citizen! You want to shout in return, but that would take more air than you’ve been able to pull into your lungs since at least mile 14… or was it 15…?
The next thing you know, the time and distance that separated you from the crowd of kids at the end of the block has evaporated, being carried into the wind like the echoes of your name, and the names of dozens of other runners. Then, you reach them. Their cold little fingers slap your palm and they cheer you on with such fervor, that it’s like a tiny bolt of electricity that originates somewhere inside your aching, frenzied chest.
Impossibly, you realize that you somehow have the strength and the will power to keep going, even if it’s just for another mile… or two.
So today, I write this open letter of thanks.
To all race day attendees who have stood outside in the heat, the snow, and the rain, who have bought sharpies and paperboard to create signs, who have played instruments, brought their pets, brought their kids, brought their mixers and their double grande coffees, I want to say: thank you.
Thank you for believing in us. Thank you for the encouragement. Thank you for the support and the faith. We may never meet again, but I’ll never forget you, or how you helped me through.