A few months after moving to Washington, DC in 1999, I witnessed something that changed my life. Walking home from the Metro one Sunday morning, I saw bunches of people wearing black plastic trash bags, walking in one general direction. Why someone would wear a trash bag with shorts on a chilly morning was obvious enough once I bent my sense of logic into shape: they were marathoners. I didn’t hang around for the start, but I made my way back to the finish line as folks were finishing, and it was amazing: people of all shapes and sizes and from all walks of life were doing something that seemed impossible—completing a course of 26.2 miles. And they were doing it while family, friends, and perfect strangers clapped and shouted and cheered them on. To call it inspirational would be a massive understatement.
Thanks in no small part to that inspiration, I embarked on several years of regular running, including six marathons of my own. The drama of the finish lines—people heroically expending their absolute last bit of energy—became a little commonplace. Indeed, in Boston it is so common to see runners with impossibly cramped legs crawling the last few hundred yards that runners learn to give them wide berth (and the throng of photographers who are waiting to capture the drama).
So a few days ago when I found myself at a way-station at the 35 mile point of a 50 mile race, I was dumbfounded. This was way beyond the maximum point I had imagined for many years—a distance that existed only in legend. I think I was expecting to see extreme athletes who had endured maniacal training regimens, focused fiercely on this task. I think I expected to see superhuman beings. What I saw was something altogether different.
It would have been easier, honestly, to consider them superhuman, except that they were so utterly human. Husbands and wives running together, laughing and joking as they refilled water bottles and downed carby snacks. Fathers with their daughters, middle-aged women who looked like mall-walkers, and puffy people who resembled the ‘before’ photo in a weight loss promotional. One man stuck out to me for his utter simplicity—he was wearing running shoes, shorts, and a long-sleeved plaid button-down shirt. I expected to see many body types, but I also expected to see a kind of fierce focus on their faces, which was almost entirely absent. Slowly, it became clear to me: they were actually having fun. And this place to pause, rest briefly, and refuel was more like a family reunion that a ring of hell. They were in pain, yes, and they were obviously doing something extremely difficult. But they weren’t suffering, they were celebrating.
The people working at the station were all volunteers, and from the look of the insignias on their shirts they were veterans of past iterations of this same event. Some pushed snacks, some cracked jokes, others cooked big pots of soup or fried up grilled cheese sandwiches on camping stoves, and one man with obvious hand tremors patiently refilled water bottles. The thing they all did was to focus on each and every runner in a very priestly way. How were they doing? How was their body holding up? Did they need to go to the bathroom? How were their spirits? What kind of strategic encouragement did they need to get them to the next stop? Did they need a joke, or a kick in the pants, or a hug, or some empathy, or an infusion of confidence? The attention and intention and love was palpable. And then the runners would test their legs again and head on down the trail.
This corner of a gravel parking lot in suburban Maryland had been transformed into a little slice of heaven. Where fallible, imperfect people overcome their limitations to do something unimaginable, just for the love of it. Where others gather to support them, cheer them on, and to pay forward a gift that someone else gave them the year before. And where no one seemed to mind the kids playing in the weeds next to the course, or the people who were gawking at all of it in wonder.
Witnessing the 35 mile mark in a 50 mile race makes you want to go home and go to church, until you realize the truth: you were just there.