On April 14, I ran a half-marathon. I’d trained for the Fitness/MORE Magazine Half-Marathon for three months. And even though it was only half the distance of the full, of the perceived holy grail of distance running, even though my legs burned and my thighs felt chafed raw, I felt like I had joined the elite.
I hadn’t slept much the night before because I was so excited. And because I was utterly terrified.
My parents cheered me on at mile seven. I saw my boyfriend at mile 10. I’d finished the hardest hill of the race a second time, and just seeing him gave me a needed boost. Every time my muscles started to ache, spectators who didn’t even know who I was spurred me on.
That’s part of the running spirit — cheering on people you don’t even know. The “runner’s hello,” waving to another person out for a run is the kind of famous, albeit brief, camraderie that makes this sport special.
I only started running because I had to train for my lacrosse team in high school. Running just one 11-minute mile was a struggle. I realized the truth of the track team’s slogan, “My sport is your sport’s punishment.” But then the unthinkable happened: running became my sport. I became part of the running community.
At the half-marathon, strangers’ signs promised food and Ryan Gosling at the finish. They shouted at me that I was doing well, but it didn’t matter which encouragements they shouted. It only mattered that they were there. Spectators mean everything in races.
Sometimes, runners can be selfish. We ditch our families and friends to go for long runs, cancel all social events before race day and plead for stretching help and massages. Runners love to use running as an excuse to do something. An important race had me justifying $50 shoes, four hours of sleep and a burrito the size of my head consumed after I crossed the finish line.
Sometimes, runners can be elitist. Runners love to brag about mile splits, running swag, the distance they just powered through or their latest top speed. But races are different. Runners become a little more humble, a little more afraid and a little more united, because suddenly, here you are with thousands of people who have sweated, blistered, pounded the pavement and the trails, fought hard for where they are today. Just like you.
What makes a runner? Is it the distance you run or how speedy you are?
I think it’s rolling out of bed from under the warm covers for a long run in the wee hours of the morning, slipping on your shoes and darting out of your home to get it done. Maybe you belt out cheesy pop music as you run. Maybe the way you breathe is music enough. You put one foot in front of the other. You’ve got to keep moving forward. You have to, because you’re a runner.
This week, my heart aches for the bystanders of the Boston marathon, all of Boston and the public watching. Nothing tests the solidarity of a group of people more than tragedy, and runners called each other to action. Many runners wore their race shirts on Tuesday to honor the victims of this awful tragedy.
I urge you to remember, not just this week, but always. Wear your pride of being a runner on the inside. Everyone can have the spirit of a runner. Of having joy and persistence every day, from the little kids sprinting across the grass to the Olympians bringing home gold.
Runners know the importance of continuing even when things are difficult, because one day, there will be a finish. Everyone can relate to that. Suffering is not forever.
Sometimes, runners can be jerks. But not now. Now we stand together. Now our fellow runners, our cheerleaders and our loved ones have suffered and we will mourn. Even if we have never known them, running unites us.
There is no mistaking that this tragedy is horrible. There is a need to mourn, a need to reflect and a need for justice. But one day, we will move forward. We have to. We’re runners.
I hope we can all find that joy again one day, from running or from life. We just have to get there one step at a time.