(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
January 2001 (retitled in the magazine). I have one of the world’s great jobs. On most weekdays I write about runners. On some weekends I see them at races.
My work takes me to many races each year. Once finished with the pre-race talk that brought me there, the choice is mine – run in the race or stand by and cheer for other runners. Either way is equally satisfying, involving either receiving shouts of encouragement or giving them.
While watching a race, my strategy is not to stand right at the finish line. You don’t see the truth of the race there. Instead, if you see anything through the crowd, it’s a victory prance as runners celebrate the last steps of their day’s work.
If you want to know what a race is really all about, then move a kilometer to a mile up the course. The view is closer there than at the finish line, the voices are quieter, and the views are more realistic.
First you see yourself in the other runners, and sometimes it isn’t a pretty sight. You notice how long the wait is from the time the leaders pass until people of your ability appear. Then you think, They look so much slower than I picture myself running at that pace.
Mostly, though, you see honest, concentrated, sometimes painful effort written on the faces and in the strides of the passing runners. Something in the way they look at this point makes bystanders shout verbal support to strangers.
Something in the look of these runners also makes the viewers tell well-meaning lies. I’ve approached hundreds of finish lines, and stood near hundreds more. I’ve always heard the same three lies:
1. “You’re almost there.” Distance and time are elastic. When you’re full of run, the early miles seem to pass in three minutes each, while the last mile can seem to stretch to half an hour.
Distance can sometimes be truly variable as one viewer shouts, “You have less than a mile to go,” then another one farther down the road informs you, “A little more than a mile to go.”
2. “It’s all downhill from here.” When you’re weary, the topographic map loses all meaning. Downhills can seem like flat running, and the flats can feel uphill.
True downhills are at best a mixed blessing because they up the stress load on well-pounded legs. At this point, just stepping off a curb can be as jarring as leaping off a steeplechase barrier.
3. “Looking good.” This is the crowd favorite. You might look more relaxed and less tired than most of the people around you, but that’s not the same as looking good.
Don Kardong once wrote, “Do you want to see how you’ll look 20 years from now? Glance in a mirror right after you finish a marathon.” Runners who look good late in a race probably haven’t run hard enough.
Never do I expect to hear someone shout, “You have farther to go than you want to know,” or, “Look out for the killer hill between here and the finish line.” I have, though, had a rare truth-telling spectator ask me late in a race, “Are you okay? You don’t look so good.” For him to say that, I must have appeared in need of a 911 call.
Trust a New Yorker to be honest. A sign spotted at one of that city’s marathons read, “Remember, you chose to do this.” And we even pay for the privilege of pushing ourselves this far, so no spectator needs to feel sorry for us.
When my turn to play cheerleader, I try to be both supportive and honest. My cheers stay neutral: “Way to go”... “Good job”… “Well done.” Or I just clap and then give a thumbs-up to anyone still able to make eye contact, while knowing that runners hear or notice even when they don’t acknowledge these good wishes.
It doesn’t matter what an onlooker says, if anything. Runners only want to know that someone – friend or stranger, loud or silent – cares what we’re doing.
2018 Update. I do a lot less participating now, and much more watching (as a teacher and coach of runners). The three big cheers of those standing with me haven’t changed, nor have my alternatives ones.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]