02 June 2013

Mom, why do some of the people running look sad? – 4-year-old spectator at 5.68 miles

1 Hanging out at the start

I haven't run too many organized races—fewer than 10—but the pre-race drill is always about the same for me: Not seeing anyone I know, other than those people I came with; Waiting in line for the bathroom; Wondering about who is fast, experienced, nervous, hopeful, planning to race, or planning to finish.

After four 5k races, three 10k races, and two half-marathons, it's still great to see the people at the start.

At one end of the spectrum are the super-fit, seemingly fast people who never wear the tech shirt from the race, have really cool sunglasses, and 13% body-fat.

At the other end of the spectrum are what I would call Normal Americans: people who like the camaraderie of people doing the same thing they are; people who wear the tech shirt from the race on race day; people who have no expectation or plans of being anywhere other than somewhere in the last three-quarters of the field; people with 30% body-fat1.

And in the middle is everyone else, in all manner of dress, every conceivable body type.

There is no "type" of person who runs these races. The people in the running magazines and the cover of the sports sections and with the stories on ESPN are the elite. Which is off-putting to lots of people, naturally. The elite runners are the edge of human athleticism, the top 0.0001%, a combination of evolution, upbringing, physical prowess, mental ability, training, and luck. By definition, you and I are unlikely to be them.

At any race, there are elite runners, because they like to win. And then there is a cross-section of the everyone else, slightly (but only slightly) skewed toward the fit end of the spectrum.

The most elite runner and the probable last finisher pin their bibs on the front of their shirts or shorts. The most elite runner and the probable last finisher go to the bathroom twice before the race. The most elite runner and the probable last finisher take of their hats at the national anthem. The most elite runner and the probable last finisher line up at the start, listen to the corny announcements, and start moving when the gun (or, more likely, the horn) sounds. The most elite runner and the last finisher both go the same distance, hang out with old and new friends, and have just as much fun.

Because why wouldn't both have just as much fun as each other?

2 5.68 miles

Today's run was a lucky run. The weather was perfect and I had no aches.

The perfect weather meant it was a nice day for a run but, more importantly, it meant there would be lots of spectators. On the route from Dexter to Ann Arbor along Huron River Drive are lots of houses. They aren't that near each other, but there are lots of them. And the good weather brought the families from those houses to the end of their driveways to cheer.

I haven't asked too many runners about what they think about spectators, but I love them. And the further I go, the loopier I get, and the more I love them. It's a virtuous cycle of exercise-induced loopy-ness and love.

Today, well before there would be much suffering or loopy-ness, at 5.68 miles from the start and 7.42 miles from the end, there was a mom and her son—2 or 3 years-old—at the end of their driveway cheering the runners on.

As I and the group I was with ran by, we all heard the little boy say:

Mom, why do some of the people running look sad?

and, less than half-way there, we all laughed together.

3 Friends for 13.1 miles

That shared laughter at 5.68 miles is only one example of the friends one makes over 13.1 miles or 5 kilometers or 10 kilometers.

Some of the friends are people you talk to: wryly wondering about the wisdom of running some distance without being chased, but for fun; saying excuse me when you turn into someone behind you; sharing an encouraging word with someone who is passing you or whom you are passing. If you see these folks at the end, they are the people to whom you say "Thanks for the run, nice job!"

Some of the friends, though, are more imaginary: The girl in the purple shirt and gray shorts you ran with from miles 2 to 6, before you couldn't keep up any more, to whom you never spoke; The guy with the Spartan helmet tattoo on his right tricep that you ran with for a while, until he started to fade at mile 10, to whom you never spoke; The man half-again your age that you caught at mile 12 and felt bad passing out of respect for your elders and respect for anyone who ran that fast for 12 miles, to whom you never spoke; The man in the Vibram shoes and German-looking tech shirt who seemed to want to race at the end, and who was a few seconds faster than you, and was swallowed up in the finishing chute before you could thank him for the good finish.

This experience has been true in every organized race I've ever run. Half the reason I'm writing this down is so I can remember it. The other half is to try to explain what happens over 3.1, 6.2, or 13.1 miles. I suppose it happens over 26.2 miles and every distance shorter and longer than that, but I couldn't say for sure.

4 Why this actually is fun

At the end of the race, whatever distance, everyone who ran it walks around with their race bib still pinned to their shirt, their finisher's medal around their neck. And everyone, other runners or not, are happy and congratulatory and glad to be done and glad to have their runners done and sweaty and proud and inspired.

Walking the few blocks back to my car after today's 13.1 miles, finisher's medal around my neck, I passed a couple out for a Sunday walk, and they said "Nice run!"

That is why this is fun. For all they knew, I was dead last, walking my way across the finish. But, still, strangers who weren't at the finish said "Nice run!". The camaraderie of runners, their friends, and strangers no where near the finish is fun.