Being a Marathon Spectator

by Jessica Luther, who can also be found at her own blog, Speaker's Corner in the ATX, and blazing trails of righteous fury on Twitter, among other places.

[Content Note: Terrorism; violence; injury.]

My husband, Aaron, has run 14 marathons over the last 8 years.

In many ways, our lives are structured around his running: He runs with a team on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday mornings and they all do an ab workout on Wednesdays. I stay home, sleep, and take care of our child. He runs one to two marathons each year and we plan family vacations around them, trying to pick locations that are both good marathon spots (fast courses or fun courses) and nice places to visit. Our son is the unofficial mascot of the running group; they gave him a team running jersey when he was born and they all cheer him on now when he participates in 1K runs.

And so, over the last 8 years, one of the things I have become is an expert marathon spectator. I study the map of the course the night before, I calculate when Aaron expects to be at what spot and if I can beat him there taking whatever transportation is available, and then on race day I venture through cities I have never even been in before so that I can cheer him on as many times as possible. I have navigated the El in Chicago, pushed a stroller through the streets of Philadelphia, driven a long stretch of the coast of Lake Superior, volunteered at a water stop during our hometown race in Austin, dealt with a flat tire and bored child at mile 20 in Houston, propped Aaron up on my body and nearly carried him back to the car after he completed a poorly-organized marathon in Atlanta that left him severely dehydrated, stood in the pouring rain in Sacramento, and, while pregnant and exhausted, ran alongside him at the finish line in Arizona when he qualified for the first time to run the Boston Marathon.

And I went to the Boston Marathon with him five years ago, months into my pregnancy, and I stood in the spot where those people were yesterday when the explosion occurred.

I keep thinking about the spectators who crowd the finish line, waiting for a glimpse of their runner. When Aaron ran Chicago in 2007, it was so incredibly hot that they ended up cutting the race off because the city was running out of ambulances helping the dehydrated and sick runners. Someone died that day on the course. Everyone was running much slower than expected which caused concern, almost near panic, by the time I made it to the finish line area. No one knew where their runners were. I had seen him at mile 16, where I also saw an elite male runner wobble to a medical tent, barely able to stay on his feet under the intense glare of the sun that day. About .1 miles from the finish line, I pushed my way to the front of a tight, packed crowd. Everyone around me was trying to figure out why their runner wasn’t there yet. Marathoners who could run 26.2 miles in under 3 hours were walking in the final steps of the race. And then, about 100 feet down on the other side of the street, a runner went down. I'll never forget thinking over and over again as I bounced on my toes, trying to see past everyone, "please don't let that runner be wearing blue shoes, please don't let that runner be wearing blue shoes," because Aaron had on bright blue shoes that day. In the end, it wasn't Aaron and that man had needed an ambulance to remove him from the race course.

Marathoning is a brutal sport to which athletes give almost everything they have each time they attempt the race. And spectators at these races reward them with endless cheering, hand slaps, fun signs, clapping hands, and broad smiles.

I have taken our son with me to cheer on his father at the finish line. In St. Paul one year, as Aaron was just making it in under the cut off for the Boston Marathon qualifying time, I put my toddler on my shoulders so he could see over the crowds. As I began to jump and cheer for Aaron, our son began to cry and freak out. I had scared him with my jubilation.

Yesterday at Boston, a family of five was standing at the finish line, probably cheering, clapping, holding signs, and smiling. They were waiting for their friends to cross the finish line. The explosion killed Martin Richard, an 8 year old in the group. His mother has suffered a brain injury and his sister reportedly lost her leg. His father and brother were uninjured in the blast. Two others died in the attack, another 170 wounded, many severely.

We already have plans to travel to New York in November when Aaron will run the marathon there. He has waited years to run this race and we celebrated when he officially got in this year. I will be there, navigating through the boroughs, cheering him and other runners on, standing on the sidelines as I have done so many times before. I will be there in crowds, bumping shoulders with other proud family members and friends. We already planned to leave our son with his grandparents for our NYC trip and I feel a sense of relief that at least this time, as I wait to see my runner come by, my fear for my safety and the safety of those around me will not include a worry for my child. I will be glued to my phone for updates on the race to make sure there is no news. I am sure we will not linger at the finish line once Aaron crosses it.

For the rest of our lives, as we travel to marathons, we will think of Martin and his family, of everyone hurt and killed. We will never move past or forget the horror of yesterday.

But we will be in marathons and on the sidelines. Aaron will continue participating in the sport that has given him so much and at which he is very good. And I will continue to attend because it is a rush and thrill to watch so many people conquer such an amazing physical feat. There is little that gives me greater joy than seeing the person I love so deeply do something that he loves so much. He marathons, I spectate, as it was and as it will be.

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