A few years ago, I earned a medal in the Chicago Marathon. It wasn’t the regular finisher medal. Mine is engraved with my name and the words “#1 Marathon Tracker”. You see, I’m not a runner. But I could go pro as a fan.
In fact, if you’re planning to run a 10-minute pace in Chicago this fall, give me a call. After carefully coordinating the race route with public transit and waiting cars strategically placed, I managed to see, and cheer, and photograph, my sister Carolyn seven times between mile 1 and mile 26.
Following a marathoner is no joke. It’s hard work. We make signs, make T-shirts, wear funny hats, and carry bouquets of balloons all over town and on crowded subway trains. Our day starts just as early. After the first glimpse of our athlete, we run, wait, search, wave, cheer, snap a photo, wave goodbye, and then run again to the next vehicle or viewing area. I have often wondered how many miles I have covered as a supporter.
It’s physically and emotionally exhausting. The whole time, we wonder and worry. We pray our runners haven’t gotten hurt on the course between where we are and where we saw them last. We recalculate our travel time with their pace time over and over. And when we reach the finish, there’s no Mylar thermal blanket for us. But we don’t care. Spending a day as a marathon cheerleader is a proud, thrilling, moving experience that never gets old for me. In fact, I cry every time I see Carolyn cross a finish line, if I am lucky to get that close. Every time.
As fans of running or of individual runners, we sign up for this. We expect to put in some sweat and tears, but not usually blood. We never think we might lose our lives, our legs, our children, our faith in humanity, while being a spectator. (I can’t shake the image of that Boston sidewalk stained with the blood of people who a few short minutes earlier were happily cheering.) We just want to be there for you.
Athletes owe their fans. And I don’t mean the “thanks for the inspiration” variety. Runners, swimmers, ball players and bungee jumpers, all have a responsibility to take care of themselves on the road to accomplishment. So stay safe. Hydrate. Train with a group in well-lit places. Because someone loves you enough to be on the other side of that barricade rooting for you to make it. And that cheering person deserves their moment, too.
As swimmers, our thoughts are with the athletes and fans that were a part of yesterday’s Boston Marathon, and especially with the friends and families of those that were killed or wounded. As rescuers, our hearts are with the first responders that came to their aid.