Learning From The Back

Last Sunday was the NYC Marathon. We happened to be in New York for work and I was thrilled to cheer on some friends as well as athletes I had been training. 
I started the day off bright and early at the rink and then threw on a pair of shoes and raced home to where we were staying in Brooklyn. I had carefully plotted out a way to avoid the race through Manhattan but hadn’t thought about where the runners would be in Brooklyn. Imagine my surprise as I came off the Williamsburg Bridge and ran smack into mile 11. The road was packed and I got permission from a race official to slowly weave over to the other side. 

As I dashed home to grab Mary and change out of my sweaty clothes, I was tracking one of my runners who I had planned to meet out on the course. Imagine my surprise when I got out there and saw that she was running way faster than I had expected and I missed her. I was bummed and headed back home. But later, I decided to go back to the bridge and hang out where I had crossed over earlier. Rock would be headed home soon and I thought it would be fun for Mary and I to cheer on athletes and meet dad on his return. 

By the time I got back to the bridge I was shocked to see that the crowds were gone and so were most of the runners (As a new mom, I tend to lose track of time). Officials were starting to take down the tape that blocked the crowds. However, small packs of runners and walkers were still coming through. Some were smiling, some were struggling, but they were still pushing forward. 

Cars started slowly returning to the streets but as we waited, more and more athletes continued to pass by us.

I chose my words carefully as I cheered them on. I gave thumbs up and high fives and some people rubbed Mary’s feet as they passed us. I avoided telling them annoying things like, “You’re almost there!” because as mile 11, you really aren’t. Hearing that is frustrating and discouraging. Instead we cheered and smiled. 

I told one man he was awesome and he looked at me with a defeated sigh and said, “I still have a long way to go.” It was true but I reminded him that he had come so far and to just keep going one mile at a time. Looking back I wish I had given him a hug and hopped in and walked with him for a mile. 

I saw a girl pushing a walker. She had a smile on her face and later I saw a video on Facebook that the marathon posted. It was that girl, one of the last finishers, crossing the line almost 12 hours after she started. It was so awesome to see her receive her medal. 

I am by no means a speedster. But I have been blessed to be able to run and have some mild success. I’ve been near the front of the pack in a few races. I’ve been fortunate to place in a race or two or to even place in my age group on occasion. And those were great moments for me. 

But my experience on Sunday taught me more than any other race I have run. It inspired me in ways that my own personal races or medals earned could never have ever given me. 

Running is hard. And we all experience pain and struggles during a race. Whether you are the first to cross the finish or the last, you feel the burn in your legs and your lungs. We all question if we will actually make it to the end or if we can achieve our goals. 

To be the runner near the back, to watch the crowds dissipate and go home and see the race itself pack up for another year, must be incredibly difficult. If you have ever run a race, you know how much the cheers and signs help carry you along, especially during moments where you have struggled. 

It takes a strong person both mentally and physically to keep pushing as this is all going on. To know that you still have 15 miles to go and that you will be alone out there for most of the race and to maintain a smile and not give up, is nothing short of incredible. I know runners who have been near the front of the race and when they realized they weren’t going meet their goal, they gave up. Why? Because it is mentally draining. It is overwhelming. 

I had tears in my eyes then and I have tears in my eyes now as I type this. Watching this determination and dedication was one of the most inspiring things I have ever seen. Getting the chance to cheer on these brave souls was one of the greatest highlights I have had at a race. 

Rock saw Meb in Central Park yesterday. That was pretty cool. But I wouldn’t trade what I saw for the chance to meet any elite runner. I saw the true elites on Sunday. They showed me every reason why it takes guts to be a runner.   

 Congrats to everyone who finished, started, and kept putting one foot in front of the other. 

24 thoughts on “Learning From The Back

  1. Amen.
    My mom (as a walker) as been at the end of many races. It is a tough fight to be there and maybe even feel like everyone else is wishing that they were home.

  2. Such a great post Sarah! And good for you being out there and supporting everyone!

    I remember my biggest fear my first 5k a few years ago was being last and laughed at … and my relief that I wasn’t even close. I am much faster than I ever imagined – not heading to Boston anytime soon, but it is all relative, right?

    My wife wanted to do the Komen breast cancer 5k this past May, but her knees and ankles are in really rough shape and she has decent arthritis on top of it all. So running really isn’t something that she SHOULD be doing, so we set up a run/walk strategy, she trained by doing walks and aerobic stuff mostly on the elliptical because even doing 1 – 2 mile runs around our development left her sore. So we did the run/walk, she was constantly concerned that she was holding me back (from a once-in-a-lifetime chance to run together?), but we ended up having fun and that was what mattered.

    Every now and then it is great to gain a new perspective on things.

    Oh – and I laughed at the ‘lose track of time’ thing … it really is amazing when they are little how time just evaporates. Now with one at college and the other a HS senior we watch young parents taking 20 minutes to set up and break down at a restaurant while we just sit and relax … it brings back memories 🙂

    • Thank you for sharing this. From my experience, so many people worry that they will be the last one in. Odds are really in your favor that you will not be the last one in. And more often than not, that last person in is just so happy to be there and finish. I think it is super important for us to take a step back and “walk a mile in others’ shoes.” There is so much we can learn from each other and learn to appreciate so much more about what we have. A huge congrats to your wife. What an incredible accomplishment and so special that you got to share the experience together. Oh and about that losing sense of time thing, there is three weeks of my life that I can’t recall or remember what happened. It was all a fog. It’s pretty funny. Rock and I went through a neighborhood a few weeks ago and remembered driving through it not long before that but we can’t for the life of us recall when it was or why we were there!

  3. Love this post! Running/walking 26.2 miles at any speed is a huge accomplishment. Back-of-the-packers need and deserve those high-fives, too. We live half a block off the course and used to go down to watch the elites and first few waves of fast runners then leave. Last time we were in town for the marathon it was chilly and windy, we went back with a tissue box and cheered for runners who were obviously struggling, but looked like they were still having a good time, taking it in at their own pace. Glad to hear officials stuck around for the last runners. I think it was Dean Karnazes who pointed out that slow runners spend twice, sometimes triple the amount of time running the course than elites do. 6+ hours of running is a feat!

  4. I have never seen the back of the pack for a large city race, but I have for some smaller marathons and half marathons. It’s one of the most incredible places to be. Those are the people with true heart, grit and determination. It’s much harder for someone to run a 12 hour marathon than a 3 hour marathon, I don’t care what anyone says. Those people are incredible!

  5. Sarah — i love this post so much. this is one of my fave running blog posts i’ve read in a while — thank you for sharing this from your kind, sweet heart. to be able to champion and support those of us runners through our tough times or difficult situations and to cover everyone with love and a sense of belonging is such an incredible thing for one runner — or HUMAN — to be able to offer another. thank you for sharing this! i love how touched you were.

    • Thanks Shawna. That race gives me all of the feels anyway. But I have learned that as a coach your most important spot to be is at the back where you are needed the most. You learn so much from those brave runners. It makes me a stronger person, runner, and coach.

  6. I really loved this post – this is such an amazing perspective. I too am not the fastest runner out there, but I’ve never known what it’s like to be near the back either. It must be incredibly challenging and those people really are the inspiring ones. They must have a type of spirit and fire in their soul that is incredibly unique. This really makes me want to take the time to cheer for those who don’t always get that support.

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