Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Cheering out the ugly

It's not often, but there have been times, during a race, when I wasn't sure I was going to make it.
It happened more often earlier in my running "career" than it has of late. I've learned a few things.
I've learned how to enjoy running more, and I've learned that with that enjoyment comes pain. If you think about it, lots of fun stuff hurts, and that goes for things that are bad for you and good for you.
I learned how to deal with the pain by repeating mantras, falling in love with lowering my times and pushing myself far beyond what the guy in my 20s thought was possible. But there was something else I learned too. I learned how to accept encouragement.
I once thought I should be able to get through whatever was thrown at me on my own. You can get through life that way, but only if life is fairly easy. My life was pretty easy until I started running.
Running brings the pain. I've never been as miserable as I've been during a bad race, even on my worst days of mountaineering. I've fantasized about many things in my life, many wonderful things, and yet nothing left me as longing as much as deep, easy breathing, a calm stomach and toes without blisters when I'm in the throes of a tough race. Yes, there are times when you feel superhuman, and those times are why you run, because more often than not, you feel inhuman.
You want nothing more than to be done. And then you look up and see someone you usually don't know smiling at you. Holding a funny sign for you. Clapping for you. Cheering for you.
This is why God made spectators.
Sometimes they say stupid things. I've heard "you're almost there" two miles from the finish, which is fine, unless you're running a marathon and your legs are cramping. But many times they don't. They say "you're looking strong" or "nice work" or, best of all, they just yell and cheer and clap.
It always amazes me. Running, unless you love it, is not a spectator friendly sport. I agree with the signs: It really is the worst parade ever. Besides, we runners can be an annoying bunch. We talk too much about it, or at least I do. We post about it too much, too, or at least I do. There's a joke that surfaces on Twitter occasionally, and every time I see it, I laugh a knowing laugh. Unfortunately I'm paraphrasing, but here goes: How will you know when someone is training for a marathon? Don't worry. They'll tell you.
Yet I wrote a story that ran in today's paper about four runners who ran Monday's Boston Marathon, and all of them said, without a doubt, the spectators were wonderful. I've heard that from others as well. It's one of many reasons why, one day, I want to run there.
Monday, as you know, was a terrible day. It was one of the worst I've had, and while I wasn't there, I had close friends there, including one who is a training partner, someone I run with pretty often. A few friends and I had no idea if she was safe for almost an hour after we learned the bombs went off.
The Boston Marathon is one of my favorite days of the year. It's a lifetime goal. It's simply special. Someone could not have hurt me more, at least not symbolically, by attacking it.
And yet when I talked to those runners today for my story, they talked a little bit about the bombing. They talked a lot more about the crowds.
I thought about that, and many times, those same crowds cheering me and my fellow runners lifted me up too during a race. Sometimes they even brought me out of the darkness.
I've been cheered by friends, and there's no doubt it means a little more. But during a painful race, there isn't that much distinction between the cheers from a friend or a stranger. It all helps. It's all wonderful.
There's been lots of brave talk about not letting terrorism defeat us, and I agree with all that, but you know, this shook me pretty hard. It probably did you too. Monday we all may have felt a little bit like we weren't going to make it. Maybe you still feel that way.
I'm already feeling a little better, though, and here's why. I've been lifted by this country's reaction to our running community. People wore race shirts to work, and they talked about our runners' spirit in stories and tweets and posts. It's been wonderful. The last time a huge news event clashed with a race, it was New York, and runners were treated like pariahs in some ways. That marathon created divisive debate. Boston seems to be healing a lot more old wounds, even if an attack opened some new ones.
It makes me think we can all lift each other, still, despite lately feeling the exact opposite about our country. A pat on the back, a smile, even a little hoo-rah can go a long way. All that can get us through the day. They can get us through the next mile.
Those runners I interviewed did mention how loud, how angry, the explosion was. But they kept going back to those cheers. Those wonderful cheers. They simply must have been louder than the bomb.