I am a marathon spectator.
I, myself, don’t run. Trust me, I’ve tried. Treadmill, road, track. I want to be one of those amazing athletes who push themselves to keep going, just one more mile . . . and then just one more after that. I want to feel the heaviness of a finisher’s medal around my neck and the crinkle of a shiny wrap around my shoulders. I long to round a corner, dead tired and foot sore, to see a sign with my name on it urging me to go the distance.
I’m just not a runner. I don’t have the drive, the patience, the endurance.
But I am a marathon spectator.
There are few other events that I enjoy more. The pumped up, friendly atmosphere, the inspiring stories, the peppy music, the colorful race outfits, the challenge of navigating by car to the place you want to be to see a runner friend or family member pass while all the main streets of town are blocked off. The expo the day before that has all those state-of the art shoes, weird-looking energy bars, and t-shirts and magnets with inside jokes printed on them that only runners and their family members would understand or laugh over. I love it all.
My first date with my husband was to a marathon he was participating in. Fifteen years ago, my good friend called me to say he had a big weekend coming up: a wedding he was attending Saturday night in one state followed by a marathon he was running Sunday morning in another. He asked me to come along with him and a couple of friends on the trip. Sometime during that weekend, between dancing at the wedding, holding hands and talking during the long car drive, and cheering him on in amazement as he ran farther, longer, and harder than I ever could, we fell in love. The Fox Cities Marathon in Appleton will always have a place in my heart for its role in our early romance.
My husband’s brother and sister-in-law (and now their two daughters) were also avid marathon, triathlon, and Iron Man enthusiasts, so between my family’s marathon and half-marathons, I’ve become and expert spectator.
I’ve walked around Chicago with a friend, map in hand, calculating distances and my husband’s pace to be able to pop up several times throughout the route to cheer him on. It was that experience spectating the marathon in downtown Chicago that inspired me to write regional fiction. Seeing the same sites that were backdrops for the characters on my favorite television show, Early Edition, made me want to give readers the excitement of walking the same streets as the fictional characters they loved.
I’ve been dropped off at the start of a marathon only to find that my ride home decided not to come. And so I’ve also had the experience of riding the fan bus to the end of the route and sitting there on metal bleachers for hours and hours in the cold fall morning, wrapped up in one of those crinkly, shiny wraps, given to me by a kind race worker who heard my story and took pity on me, watching as first the elite, and then more and more runners finished, all to the repeated tune of the 1988 Summer Olympics coming out of the loudspeaker.
I’ve taken the nine hour trip to Detroit and sat in in a stadium seat at Ford Field, reading the race magazine for two hours and waiting for my husband to finish just so he could live out his dream of running through the tunnel and onto the field of his favorite football team. I’ve also missed him finish and then spent two hours afterwards, a short person in a crowded arena, trying to connect back with him so we could start the nine-hour drive home.
I’ve sat in a hotel in my pajamas and looked down several stories at the start of a race, taking in all the colors of race shirts below us, leisurely having breakfast with a friend, and then headed out to find our loved ones on the course, towing my one-year-old daughter with us.
I’ve stood on the sidewalk and watched in awe as thirteen-year-old girls, eighty-year-old men, amputees in wheelchairs, and people dribbling basketballs do this thing that I will never be able to do.
I’ve pulled my jacket around me tighter against cold and rain and watched runners battle the elements in their running gear, and I’ve sought out the shade on those blistering hot days and watched runners, red faced and limping along, douse themselves with water at the next water station and refuse to give in to exhaustion.
I’ve stood at the end, my eyes going back and forth between the timer clock above the finish line and the crowd, hoping to see my husband appear before his goal time passes. Often, that goal time was just under four hours. Yes, I’ve stood there near the finish line many times at that popular four-hour mark.
I’ve run the marathon with the distance that’s perfect for me: the mile-long kids run with my daughter, the day before my husband ran a half marathon.
I’ve sweated it out, watching the clock in the school gym, a few minutes before preschool graduation, hoping that my husband can finish his race and the forty-five minute drive home in time to see my daughter’s presentation. And I’ve seen the smile on her face as he arrived, just in time, thanks to a personal best record, medal around his neck.
I’ve stood on the sidewalk and chatted with strangers about where they’re from and who they’re there to support, and I’ve cheered with them as their runner passed.
I’ve attended award ceremonies in the atrium of Lambeau Field when my sister-in-law placed in her division and said to my husband proudly and loudly enough for other spectators to hear, “Yeah, it’s pretty cool that she won her division, huh?”
I’ve parked at closed businesses and sprinted to the finish line, being ushered across the route by officials, to get there in time to snap a picture of a runner friend finishing.
I’ve felt the thrill of the adventure as I’ve weaved my way through the back roads of cities, piled out of the car with my husband, our three-year-old daughter, baby boy, and eleven-year-old niece so we could catch up with my sister-in-law in half a dozen spots along the route. Then we’d jump back in the car and weave our way to another location, rushing and laughing, hoping to connect with her at just the right moment.
I’ve sat at home, searching through triathlon web sites to find the page where you can track your athlete. I’ve done so every twenty minutes all day long in cases of Iron Man triathlons, tracking family members who have already started swimming by the time I got up and are somehow still running when I am getting ready for bed.
I’ve done a lot of things while spectating marathons, but there’s one thing I’ve never done:
I’ve never been afraid.
I’ve never felt concerned for my life or limb or eardrum.
I’ve never looked at the person standing next to me and wondered if he or she has just set in motion events that could hurt myself or someone I love.
I’ve never once had a contingency plan in place as to how to best throw myself on top of my children and onto the ground in case disaster strikes.
Who are marathon spectators?
They are the wives who bandage blistered toes and massage aching backs. They are the husbands who give pep talks the night before. They are the kids who hold up hand-made poster board signs that say, “Go Mom!” or “You can do it, Aunt Jenny!” They are the spouses who happily let a good portion of their household income go towards expensive shoes, running gear, race entry fees, and travel expenses, and they are the people who have to explain to curious fellow shoppers in parking lots why their car has a bumper sticker on it that says “13.1 Because I’m Only Half Crazy.” They are the friends who stand on the sidewalks at the start, most often in the early morning, pre-dawn chill, to cheer their loved ones on at the gun and whose presence at the finish line provides that final burst of willpower for their runner to make it.
They are people like my beautiful, funny, sweet fourteen-year-old niece who was at the Boston Marathon Monday supporting her mom. She was a block away inside a restaurant when the bombs went off. Her mom had not finished yet and was diverted by officials. I have thanked God probably a hundred times in the past three days for protecting my family.
My first thought on Monday was, “Well, we won’t be doing that again.” And I was sad because I’d lost something. Something fun I loved, something that had been the backdrop for a lot of great memories, something that couldn’t be part of my life anymore because of the “what if”s that started to creep in.
But I have this feeling that my runner friends and family are too strong to let cowardly acts of terror keep them from running marathons, and somebody needs to stand on the sidewalk, holding the sign and cheering.
So I am still a marathon spectator.
Jenifer Brady, a regional fiction writer from Wisconsin, is the author of the Abby’s Camp Days series. http://www.jeniferbrady.com