I am not a runner. Still, I very much enjoy staking out a sidewalk "cheering spot" during the New York City Marathon. Whether I know anyone who's running is beside the point. We rooters understand that on marathon day, we're all connected.
Training for a marathon is a true challenge, completing one a triumph; simply attempting the feat is a huge deal. Each entrant deserves support, and if hearing shouts of encouragement is uplifting for the marathoners, it likewise lifts the spirits of those who are shouting.
It's fun when a racer's shirt has been written on, telling onlookers what to say – "Rock on, Stephanie!" "Go, Grandpa Joe!" Some just give a name, leaving the cheering specifics to the crowd but letting particular runners ("Looking great, Luther!" "Nice pace, Elke!") hear that they and their efforts are not overlooked. Random, anonymous, stream-of-consciousness cheering is enjoyable, too: "Keep it up!" "That's the way!" "Cute shoes!"
Last year, when I showed up at the point of the marathon route nearest my home, I saw ... nothing. I had misjudged. The band that had been playing on the corner was packing up, and the crowd had dispersed. I was appalled. The marathoners had trained diligently for months, come from all over the world, and gotten themselves out of bed near dawn to arrive at the starting line. All this, and I could not complete the 10-minute walk from my apartment in time to support them?
And then, approaching in the distance, I saw two women. They were short, Asian, perhaps in their 50s. One was limping and using a walker; tied to it were yellow and white helium balloons. The other held her companion's elbow. They wore marathon numbers, T-shirts, sweaters, and what looked like polyester slacks with their running shoes.
This was my opportunity, and I went into booster overdrive. I leaped and clapped and yelled; I got passersby and the band to cheer also. "Good job! Way to go! Doing great!" I kept up a steady patter as the women came toward us at a slow walk; I continued as they passed; and I kept going as they began to round the next corner. They smiled and waved. "Way to go!" I called.
"Thank you!" they answered.
When they disappeared from view, I remembered an errand I could run in the direction they'd headed. When I caught up with them, I began cheering again; others on the sidewalk joined in.
"Keep it up!"
I wondered where they were from, how they'd come to this event, and even – given that they said only two words – how much of what we were saying they understood. But the message, I could see, was getting through. They beamed.
I reached the bank and paused at the door for one last burst of claps, jumps, and cheering. The women passed me again, smiles wide, waving vigorously. I realized I had tears in the corners of my eyes.
For the next marathon, I'll turn out earlier to catch the camaraderie of being surrounded by both runners and cheerers. But I'll also stick around past the time when the band packs its gear and the crowd goes its way – waiting for those in the race who, though they might not actually be running, are now among my favorite marathoners of all.