One Speck in a Sea of Runners

IT was amazing, for those four hours my personal identity had totally dissolved. To the thousands of people lining that 26.2 mile stretch of road, and eventually to myself, I was simply ``City Sports,'' the two words printed on my T-shirt. I couldn't imagine liking that. I hadn't even planned on running the marathon. It is always on a Monday and I knew I had to work. But that morning things were especially quiet, so when I got a call offering a ride out to the starting line I ran the idea past my boss.

Disregarding the pile of mail on his desk and mine, he asked, ``Are you in shape?''

``Well, I used to run a lot,'' I shot back, realizing by his quizzical smile he was going to let me go.

He gave me a puzzled look. ``Have you ever run a marathon?''

``No.''

He laughed and I was on my way, hardly thinking about what I had done.

Having just recently moved to Boston, I only knew a few people. The one who had offered the ride was only expecting me to come along and watch. I phoned back, accepted the ride, but said I would need to borrow shorts and a T-shirt. Skeptically I was included.

On the way out to the starting line, as everyone exchanged war stories of their previous marathon experiences, I couldn't help but feel that this was to be a type of proving ground for me, the new guy from California.

I had been running a little recently, and I knew having completed a 20 mile race in high school (six years earlier) would help mentally. But this was the Boston Marathon! The only other novice in the car explained that this was his second time in the race. Last year he had only made it 15 miles.

OK, that was my goal, 15 miles - to save face more than anything else. I really wasn't in great shape and I didn't want to overdo it. But at the same time I didn't want to look like a fool among people I hoped to become my new friends.

We arrived and everyone promptly began their various warmup rituals. I was immediately struck by the mass of individuals, only a portion of whom donned running attire, who had invaded this small town. It looked as though each runner had brought a small entourage to see him or her off. Spectators packed the roadside and even hung from the trees. Signs wishing dads, moms, and spouses luck were everywhere.

The tension in the air was really quite indescribable. There were thousands of people. Some would be running sub-five minute miles for 26 consecutive miles; others were just hoping to make it back to Boston in time for work the next day. (I hoped to be somewhere in between.) Many people were running unofficially. Some people were even in costume! I just drank in the whole picture - the starting line at the Boston Marathon.

A loud speaker gave us minute by minute updates of how close we were to starting. The time approached, and the crowd divided. For blocks runners packed the main street like sardines; spectators migrated to the roadside.

AS the starting cannon boomed in the distance, the pack slowly inched forward, and eventually began to spread itself out. As I expected, there were runners as far as the eye could see in both directions. But my other expectation had been mistaken. Surely, as the miles went on through the vacant countryside, the spectator crowd would thin and eventually disappear until we neared Boston. Not so.

At first the spectators annoyed me. I mean really annoyed me. I was tired, dealing with a plentiful variety of aches, and the last thing I wanted was a group of strangers jumping in my face and screaming. If they were that enthusiastic about the marathon, why were they yelling ``YOU CAN DO IT!'' at me instead of running themselves? And they didn't even have the decency to consider that I had a name. To this multitude of armchair quarterbacks I was simply ``City Sports,'' the words on the T-shirt which I had borrowed. Please.

But then it happened.

It was between mile 17 and 18. All motivation to continue was gone. I had come this far only to realize that I was still nine miles outside of Boston! I had passed my goal of 15 miles. I wouldn't be holding my head all that high, but at least I could look my friends in the face, maybe. And what was I doing there in the first place, who was I kidding? I had resigned myself to find the nearest subway station and then crawl back to my bed.

And then, there she was. At the top of a very small rise in the street - which may as well have been Mt. Everest as far as I was concerned - was this woman. She was quite short and quite round. My eyes were fixed on her as I half jogged, half walked up this hill. I likened the determination in her eyes to that of a mother watching her only son go to bat in his first Little League baseball game. She was doing everything she could think of, short of carrying me, to get me up that hill.

``Come on, City Sports! Come on!''

``Every little step brings you that much closer to Boston!''

``You've come so far, City Sports! You can do it!''

I was out there trying to prove something to myself. I'm not sure what, but I was out there, concerned only for me and how I would look to those waiting for me at the finish line.

This woman had nothing to prove. She was out there not for herself, but for every one of the thousands of people who were pushing themselves through those 26 miles. From those shooting for the world record to those who would not see Boston in the light of day, her sole purpose was to get them up that hill.

My pace did not quicken. There was no sudden burst of adrenalin. But from that moment on I knew I would finish. She would be there to help every last runner up that hill, and I was going to finish. It was that simple.

All the way through the race, the streets were lined with spectators. I can't recall a single empty spot. Sparse sometimes, but always someone not too far down the road. And from the hill lady on, I saw that spark of encouraging determination in every pair of eyes there. People had given up their day to come watch and to help me and the others finish.

As I prepare for this year's race there isn't all that much I remember of last year. If I really try I can catch glimpses of this place or that, or remember that feeling of first catching sight of the Prudential Center. But I will never forget that lady on the hill. It is because of her, and the innumerable others who ``do'' the marathon without ever putting on a pair of running shoes, that I not only finished last year but anxiously return this year. Today marks the 94th running of the Boston Marathon.

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