As I stood on a curb in Davis Square, Somerville Thanksgiving morning sipping a Vietnamese coffee in slightly subzero weather, it occurred to me that I am very dedicated to running. But then, immediately, I corrected myself. I hate to run, is the truth. I guess what I really mean is that I am dedicated to runners.
Since the end of college, I have had runners in my life. Best friends. Girlfriends. Co-workers. Roommates. And often, I have been enlisted to cheer them on at races of various distances. 5k. 10k. Half marathon. Marathon. This morning, I trekked a mile into town to encourage my roommate Audrey and my co-teacher Rachel as they crossed the finish line of Somerville’s annual Gobble Gobble Gobble 4 Mile Run. Audrey usually runs a race with her father and sister in Dayton on Thanksgiving, and I agreed to wait for her at the finish line so she’d feel less homesick stuck in Boston.
I’ve done quite a few road races now, as a spectator. The protocol is pretty much the same. Look out into the street. Clap dutifully. Cheer louder when your runner passes. Make small talk with the people around you. This is an important part. Because as strenuous as running four miles is, it’s almost as difficult to stand still in the cold for forty to forty-five minutes. So the choices are 1. Get faster friends or 2. Make friends with the folks you’re standing near.
Usually it’s pretty easy to find common ground with your neighbors. This Thanksgiving I found myself planted next to Victoria a woman about my age who is also a teacher. It turns out she comes every year to support her partner who is also, also a teacher. In the past, I have chatted up Mary, a woman from the town next to mine whose son was running a half marathon for charity. But above all of these coincidences, one simple commonality facilitates an immediate bond amongst spectators at a race: None of us are running.
Now, this fact is fairly obvious, but it carries several implications. The first being that everyone along the sidelines a. Has no interest in running competitively or b. Can’t/won’t make their body run a race for some other reason. (For me it’s a combination of both. But I like to think that I could step in and bang out a 5k course in a respectable time the same way monday morning quarterbacks assume they could fill Tom Brady’s cleats after a Patriots loss.) Beyond that, we have decided to convene roadside at 9am in the freezing cold to support someone in our life that we care about/owe a major league favor. Outside of real serious marathons, road races are not like other sporting events where people attend to cheer for teams they have no personal connection to. You’re there because someone you know is there. Or else you’re a weirdo.
Cheering for a runner is a powerful pride/shame cocktail. Pride in the accomplishment of your friend. Shame in that you’re watching literally thousands of people in better shape than you pass by at full tilt. Since only the top few are really in contention to finish first, everyone else just celebrates the victory of completing the race.
And it’s not just the folks you think of being in peak physical condition. These are not all slender marathon veterans or wiry cross-trained athletes you see. The field is peppered with dumpy men chugging and wheezing their way to the finish, older women in fanny packs running with a clipped tentative gait, and children. Literal children. Ten-year-olds, dude. The kids are the worst. So demoralizing. To watch an actual pre-teen finish a race faster than you know you would. It must be what Encyclopedia Brown’s father felt when the boy detective cracked another one of the police department’s unsolved mysteries.
The weirdest thing is this:
Normally, the audience of a sporting event is a congregation of average folks who gather to watch a small group of exceptional athletes and performers display their skills. The key factors there are that 1. The spectators outnumber the athletes and 2. The athletes are more skilled/fit/qualified than the fans. This all goes out the window with a road race. Anyone with enough grit and dedication can train him/herself to run three miles. So the discrepancy between spectator and athlete isn’t talent. It’s about who wants it more. Plus, when you are watching a race, you can’t see the entire audience. They are spread out over a distance of several miles. But you do see all the competitors. So there’s the strange feeling of being outnumbered by the athletes that you never get at a basketball game or a golf match.
Nothing like being awash in people with superior motivation and athleticism to fuel an inferiority complex. But then I realize. It’s not about me. These folks are pushing themselves to their physical limits through competition. Maybe I do that in other ways. Like, how many of these so called athletes have eaten an entire frozen pizza in one sitting this year? Just what I thought. Suck it, jerks. Victory, Gondelman.