Dear Friendlies -
( I started this post on the morning of April 15th, hours before, and miles away from, the events that would unfold in my beloved Boston. I'm finally ready to finish it today.)
I love Marathon Monday in Boston. Having lived on Beacon Street in Brookline for 17 years, participating in my city's important day was a treat and a happy obligation. In the early '90's I watched with the crowds at Coolidge Corner or Kenmore Square where the race, for me, seemed like a giant social event. Two or three times, when I worked retail in the Back Bay (always open, even on a holiday), I was right on Boylston Street listening to the applause and the shouts of encouragement near the finish line.
My favorite memories were the 10 years watching from the 1/2-mile stretch between Cleveland Circle and Washington Square right around Mile 23. The crowd was jovial, someone was always grilling in front of my building, beach chairs were set-up, and there was no shortage of beer. At this stretch in the course, only a few miles from the finish, there were no barriers and the runners were very close to the spectators. I loved this spot because I felt like I could make a difference there. Make a difference? Let's get one thing straight: Miss O does not enjoy running and is not entirely sure why someone would put themselves through a marathon. And yet, I never missed it.
From my bedroom window, I could see and hear the early spectators getting into place. I would check the tv and watch the progress of the leaders, listening for the news helicopters...when I saw them approaching Chestnut Hill Avenue, I would tear down the stairs and across the street to see the leaders fly by. It was always thrilling and always over in a second. Then I would return to my apartment to wait for the "real people".
At first I didn't understand why I was drawn to the marathon. It's not like watching a match with exciting action or the possibility of an thrilling play. In fact, it made me uncomfortable to watch a herd of strangers struggling, panting, sweating, sometimes bleeding, but I would watch and clap. I often got a sun-burn with the outline of my sunglasses on Marathon Day, my hands would be sore from clapping and my voice was hoarse. Sometimes I would watch with a pal, but often I would spend an hour or two by myself cheering for random runners. On Marathon Monday 2006, I was headed to the airport to fly to Paris with a dear pal and his mom, but stopped to put in my time on the course as he waited with our suitcases on the sidewalk. In 2007 I was at a friends' party down the street and we came upstairs (for more beer) to learn of the tragedy at Virginia Tech. By the 2008 Marathon, I had acquired a cowbell (a gift from a dear friend, an alumnus of Furman University) with the letters FU.
Armed with my cowbell, I was an unstoppable cheerleader...a one-woman noise-machine, a whirling dervish of encouragement and support for these unknown athletes. I say athletes, but sometimes I thought of them as poor bastards. "Why on earth would this poor bastard put him/herself through this?" I didn't get it. I still don't, but now I have many many friends who are runners, and I don't think of them as poor bastards. I think what they do is admirable, heroic even. I have a friend who has run the Boston Marathon 10+ times for the American Liver Foundation. I know another guy who ran a 50k to celebrate his 50th birthday. On my 50th birthday, I plan to be lounging on a divan drinking champagne like it's my job, not getting sweaty and miserable with leg cramps. What can I tell you? It takes a village.
As my years as a spectator progressed, so did my cheering. First I just clapped and yelled "Whoo" randomly. Then I started reading the names on the runners' jerseys and calling them out by name, "Looking good, Bob! Keep it up!" Sometimes nothing happened, my voice was lost amid the stampede. Sometimes I saw an imperceptible smile or nod as they heard their name and pushed forward. Sometimes they located the source of the sound and made eye contact with me. Other spectators would stare as I went on for hours with my solo gig, yelling and ringing my bell. If a runner was wearing a shirt with their flag, I would (try to) yell in their language: Allez la France! Viva Italia! Foreigners were always very surprised and very appreciative of the support. In 2009, an adorable Asian gentleman in his 40's was so pleased when I yelled "Let's go Korea!" that he STOPPED RUNNING and took a picture with me by the side of the race.
Perhaps the most special moments were when the runners were very close to me, with no barriers, just 2 feet away, and I didn't need to yell, I could speak to them quietly. I would lean as close as I dared without obstructing the path and say: "You got this, Girl. You're kicking ass, Buddy. Stay Strong. You're going to make it." Often the women would mouth "thank you". The men had more of a visceral response, I could see them lean in and move forward with determination. These up-close-and-personal exchanges had a profound effect on me. Sometimes I could feel myself getting choked up. You're not even running, what the frack are YOU crying for?! It was my heart that was overflowing. Overflowing with joy, with purpose. If my voice, if my smile could help a complete stranger move one foot closer to their goal, maybe we can all make a difference?
Every man, woman, and child on Planet Miss O will be (should be) cheering for the Red Sox tonight, but tomorrow I ask you to find someone, a regular person, maybe someone close to you, perhaps a total stranger who needs encouragement.
Merriam-Webster defines the verb encourage:
1. to fill with courage or strength of purpose
2. to help the growth or development of
3. to rouse to strong feeling or action
Friendlies, helping someone achieve their goal, supporting someone who faces a challenge is a great gift. We are on this earth to be a blessing. I encourage you to share your strength, to use your voice, your kindness, your smile...be someone's cheerleader. You can make a difference!