Usually at 6:42 on a Sunday morning, I’m looking through blurred eyes at an alarm clock, trying to haul my butt out of bed to get to church on time. But last Sunday morning was different, and may lightning strike me dead, a whole lot more fun. At 6:42 a.m. my butt (and my bike) were on a train heading to watch two of my best friends run the Chicago Marathon. They, along with 90 others from my church, were running with Team World Vision to raise money for clean water in Africa. And because they are just that cool.
The Metra was packed and my nerves were hoppin, partially because I was anxious for my friends, but mostly because I was on a train. Heading to the city. With my bike. And a map I could only kind-of read. With 1.7 million other spectators. And not a clue what I was doing.
I funneled off at Union Station with another biker — a man who was meeting a friend he hadn’t seen in 20 years — who was nice enough to help me up to the street and point me in the right direction. We wished one another luck (I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a clue either) and off I went, zigging and zagging through the massive city streets until I caught up with the course at Mile 3.
The scene was truly amazing: thousands upon thousands of runners (45,000 registered) pouring through what looked more like a Fourth of July parade route than a race course: music blaring, people cheering, signs waving, air horns blowing. With the exception of the guy who had a six-foot Eiffel Tower attached to his back, the runners looked happy, optimistic even about the journey ahead. I waited until I saw the 4:30 pace group, the group I knew my friends were running with, and excitedly scanned each face until I found them.
Like a parent at a preschool graduation, I yelled and jumped and waved until they finally saw me, at which point they yelled back and raised their arms like the tape was just ahead.
I’m embarrassed to admit it, but the moment got the best of me. I knew the journey that had led them there — the 5 a.m. starts, the relentless miles, the sacrificed family time, painful shin splints, nagging muscle injuries, near-death exhaustion — but more than that, these were my girls. My friends who have traveled with me through darkness and light, whose lives are inextricably intertwined with mine. And now there they were side-by-side — not just running a race, but sharing an experience of a lifetime. I wiped at my tears, shook my head at the absurdity of my emotion and then quickly looked to my left and right to be sure no one else saw. Anyway, I didn’t have time for nonsense. I had to figure out how to get to Wells and North Avenue — Mile 10.
This was my pattern for the next five hours. Whipping out the map from my backpack, loosely orienting myself to the next point (then asking people along the way because I only pretend I can read a map), pedaling like I was in de Tour, picking my way around kids with shirts that said ‘Go Mommy,’ apathetic city-dwellers trying to get their regular cup of coffee, homeless legs jutting out from dilapidated buildings, and excitedly anticipating the brief moment I’d get to catch a glimpse of my girls and unabashedly root them on again.
I had the time of my life — spectating.
I have to confess, spectating is not what I’d call my forte. I’ve always been a gamer. The go-to girl. The get-the-ball-in-my-hands-and-let-me-win-at-the-buzzer kind-of girl. Spectating has always seemed so passive, so boring and so completely unimportant. And while I never have had (and continue to have no) desire to run a marathon, as I watched my friends run tandem down Michigan Avenue at Mile 25, I was a tad bit jealous. Watching from the sidelines just makes me antsy.
This past week, I received emails and FB posts from the runners I knew — people’s whose eyes I was able to catch and briefly cheer for — saying what it meant to see a familiar face screaming their name above the voices in the crowd.
My girls called me too. Together we excitedly recounted every detail of the miles we’d paralleled. They shared the highs and lows of the race, but the thing they said that kept them going, the rush that propelled them from one mile to the next, was seeing their loved ones cheering them on from the conglomerated mass. As I listened, I expected to feel the swelling pride at their feat; I’d been feeling it for months. What I was overwhelmed by was the pure joy that I experienced from simply being the voice in the crowd they could pick out over all the others. The joy I found by removing myself from the equation and simply choosing . . . to spectate.