On Sunday, April 13, 2014, Raleigh hosted its first Rock & Roll® Marathon and Half Marathon races. Raleigh’s selection by the national Rock & Roll® franchise was touted as a defining moment for the city. But as one of the more than 10,000 runners competing, what struck me most on Sunday was that the race was a collection of thousands of defining moments that spanned the spectrum of the human experience.
At 6:00am on Sunday, I walked out of my brother’s house with my dad, brother, step-sister and a close childhood friend. We headed to the starting line, each with our own story. My brother was the only one of us competing in the full marathon. He’s a seasoned triathlete (an Ironman finisher in 2012 even), but this was going to be the first time he’d run “just a marathon.” My friend had a very specific goal – to set a new personal record and finish in less than two hours. My father, a Boston marathoner at age 48, was running his longest race in the last 5 years. For my stepsister and me, this was to be half marathon #2. My father and I planned to run it side-by-side. He could easily out-pace me by 2 minutes per mile, but that’s not what mattered. See, there was a time 15 years ago – when I was overweight and struggling with my own health – that he could run faster backward than I could forward. But on this day, we’d be finishing those 13.1 miles together. Those were our stories. But what struck me both as we waited for the race to begin, and throughout, was how many other significant stories surrounded us.
While we warmed up and stretched, I spotted three sisters in matching tank tops labelled “older”, “middle” and “little,” who posed as their mother snapped pictures. Others wore t-shirts emblazoned in scripture, prepared to share their faith while they ran. Many runners had Jimmy V Foundation-sponsored bibs tacked to the back of their shirts – they were running in honor of a loved one affected by cancer. Hundreds of others dedicated their race to the memory of a loved one, with pictures and names displayed on their race shirts. There were Ainsley’s Angels, a group of runners that would be pushing wheelchairs for the length of the race so that individuals with special needs could experience such a great event of endurance.
As the race started: more stories. About a mile in, I read the back of an elderly man’s shirt– he was 82 years old, had competed in every single inaugural Rock & Roll® event across the country, and this one was going to be his 166th marathon. I had to let that sink in – 166 marathons! How many miles must he have run in his life? At that moment, I realized I couldn’t fathom how many miles all the participants had logged in preparation for this journey of 13.1 or 26.2 miles. It takes countless hours away from friends and family to prepare for such a race. Not to mention money, effort, sweat – lots of sweat. And for more than 10,000 runners, this day was the culmination of all that hard work and dedication.
Further into the race, my attention turned to those who came in support of the runners. Hundreds of policemen and women reported for duty that morning to keep participants and volunteers secure along the closed course. They were running to the aid of fallen runners when one of the many EMTs wasn’t nearby. And speaking of EMTs, they worked tirelessly, treating everything from ankle sprains to heat exhaustion.
Then there were the volunteers. Many were there passing out water and sports drinks, no doubt being splashed constantly. Dozens of bands – a highlight of the Rock & Roll® events – lined the course, sharing their gifts through music. (To the band at mile 10 who was blasting a cover of “Don’t Stop Believing” as my dad and I passed, I give you special thanks for that perfectly timed tune.)
Next up were the families, friends, and strangers cheering from the sidelines. My stepmom, in an effort to see and cheer for us all, covered nearly as much ground as we racers did. A friend stood with her dog at a sparsely populated corner providing encouragement and snapping pictures. One newlywed couple dressed in gown and tux held one of the many funny signs we saw – it urged us to run faster, lest we be “caught like the groom.” Residents of the Oakwood neighborhood sat in rocking chairs on their porches, sipping mimosas, taking part in their own small way. My favorites, though, were the seasoned spectators, angels in my mind, who made a point to stand along the course’s many hills, shouting at the top of their lungs that we “could do it” and we “were almost to the top.” We runners needed to hear that, we really did.
Not all the stories were joyous ones. Near the 11th (or 24th) mile, the course was lined with American flags and pictures of fallen service men and women. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the two men who inexplicably lost their lives while competing in the race. In a day punctuated by so many precious moments, none display the fragility of life more than those two tragic losses, and my heart goes out to the families and friends of those dear men.
Thankfully, there were also beginnings and “firsts” to celebrate: the runners who achieved their first long-distance race… the couple who got engaged in front of the Raleigh Convention Center, just minutes after completing the race. Remember my close friend, the one who wanted to finish her race in less than two hours? She bested her goal by more than seven minutes. And my jovial brother actually danced as he approached the finish line, stopping to kiss his wife, scoop up their baby and went on to complete the marathon with his child in his arms. At nearly six months old, she’s already crossed her first race finish line. It likely won’t be her last.
So many individuals from Raleigh, from North Carolina, and from the country, were joined together in this one event, and in the end that’s what compelled me to share the experience with you.
It mattered that 10,000 plus runners joined each other in one similar goal. It mattered that siblings and parents and couples were running that race together. It mattered that the service men and women of the city were keeping everyone safe. It mattered that complete strangers were shouting words of encouragement to people they’ve never met and probably never will. It mattered that friends were sending “good luck!” texts and that coworkers on Monday morning were asking “how was the race?!”
It matters when we set a goal and achieve it. And it matters when we support each other – family, friends, strangers. I’m certain that we’d all undo the race if it could somehow bring back those two precious lives, but I also take comfort in the belief that they were surrounded by such a profound display of love and support in their final hours.
My other hope in writing about the race is this: the next time there’s a race in your community – whether it’s a small 5k, a sprint triathlon, or a franchised full marathon – participate in it. If your health (and doctor) permits it, and you have time to train – do it. If your family, friends, church members or coworkers are competing – support them. Wish them luck, send them prayers and blessings, stand on a street corner or the side of a hill and shout words of encouragement at them. Make a funny sign. Volunteer and pass out water along the way or bananas and protein bars at the end. Host a spaghetti dinner at your house or your church the night before and help the runners “carb-load” before the race.
Take part in whatever way you can. Take it all in. And remember, whatever you do, it will matter.
Bottom picture from Flickr user Joe, via CC