Of the four weekends this month, I am racing three of them. This weekend was my one Saturday off. Instead of spending it on a long-run (or, more preferably, sleeping in), K and I chose to volunteer at a 5k. The organization that orchestrates most of our races is really superb, and we wanted to give back.
The morning started with a short run for both of us. I got new shoes yesterday, finally breaking down and getting the pair recommended to me last spring when I was having knee pain. I wanted to try them out, but didn't want to do a full run. I did an easy two miles, paying particular attention to all my trouble zones: ankles, knees, hips. My hamstrings and calves felt different (the new shoes are for pronation, and I've been wearing neutral shoes), but I didn't have any pain. I don't feel 100% better, but I'm thinking this will help.
Anyway, after the run we headed downtown to the race. It was really cool to discover how everything works behind the scenes, and to meet the people who put so much effort into making these races run smoothly. We helped set up the time-mat at the finish, organized some late-registration forms, and took our place to cordon off the start route when all the runners were out. Our job was to rearrange the cones so the runners took the correct street down to the finish. We were just in the last .1 miles of the 5k, so we were in the perfect spot to cheer everyone on in their final moments.
The first racers came down the chute just past the 17-minute mark. I reflected on how it must feel to be that fast. First place was about a minute ahead of second, and both men must have run the race pretty much alone. One of the things I like about racing is the solidarity you feel surrounded by other runners as you struggle through the tough spots together. (Have I mentioned I'm not really competitive?) Anyway, I couldn't help but think it must be lonely to finish first. There's hardly anyone at the finish line to cheer you in, and then you have to wait five or ten minutes before more racers get to the finish. Also, because the early finishers pretty much know where they've placed, I didn't seem them dig deep for a final sprint over the line.
As more runners began to funnel in to the end, that's where the real excitement started. It was with pure joy - and vicarious exhilaration - that I watched racers come around the final corner, spot the clock, and dig deep to attempt an all-out sprint. I imagine these runners are a lot like I am: their main competition is themselves. Seeing the clock, knowing how close you are to overtaking the person ahead of you, hoping you can blast your last time out of the water, knowing you can overtake one, maybe two more people before it's over...That's where the rush comes in.
K and I were screaming and clapping for these strangers. "You're almost there! It's just around the corner! Dig deep! You can do it! Great work! Push it!" We must have looked crazy, cheering for everyone (and no one in particular).
As mid-time runners began to dwindle and we got well into the 30-minute range, the atmosphere grew more crazed. You would think seeing slow runners would sap the energy, but the opposite was true. I know how hard these people are working. I understand the struggle of completing a 5k in 35-minutes, forcing yourself to go on when you feel you've failed. We saw so many inspiring runners today. We saw people way past their prime, white-haired and running with huge smiles plastered to their faces. We saw runners we recognized from other races who are making awesome progress in losing weight. We saw children sprinting along beside their parents. We saw an amputee, running on a prosthesis, the epitome of endurance and perseverance.
More heart-clenching still were the early finishers who ran back to the race route to bring people home to the finish. Just as K does for me, these people ran back, met up with slower runners, and ran beside them calling encouragements the whole way. The runners who struggled to the end but refused to give up are, for me, the most inspirational.
I didn't realize how much I'd get out of today's volunteering. It left me with a whole new appreciation for runners of all levels. I have never understood more what it means to be a member of this tribe. I can take personal satisfaction in the victories of total strangers, whether they feel victorious or not.
Today's work made it clearer than ever that just finishing a race is a huge, amazing, and wonderful accomplishment to be celebrated.