It is quite a humbling experience to watch someone run a marathon. Months of training, innumerable blisters and buckets of sweat going into one, long, LONG run.
All kinds were running in Cork. Obvious beginners, holding back; seasoned competitors sporting t-shirts from marathons two and three years ago – even one man proclaiming membership of the “100 marathon club”.
Most seem to be running for a cause – cystic fibrosis, rape crisis, child protection, homelessness, suicide helplines – all angles are covered. Many without affiliation acquire the “green ribbon” badges handed out on the sidelines.
A fair few seem to be running for the sheer joy of it, with genuine grins for the crowd. Many have something more akin to a rictus spread across their face, grimacing through the perhaps unwanted attention.
Several were clearly running for others, with photos emblazoned on their shirts. There is one obvious hero in the group – a man with red cape and pants, one would call him Superman but for the ‘M’ on his chest. He never failed to elicit cheers from the children he passed.
A few others have taken a tongue in cheek approach to couture – a Baywatch style Hasselhoff lookalike (complete with inflatable life-preserver) raised a handful of laughs – and he certainly revelled in them.
One gent seemed wholly inappropriately dressed. A checked flannel shirt, beige chinos and red baseball cap is hardly marathon attire – his truth was only revealed as he passed, with a sign stuck to his back ” Run Forrest, RUN!”
There was even a man I was certain was a hobo who’d wandered into the race and just decided to jog along, until I saw the number on his chest. Appearances are not what they seem.
Friends were made on the sidelines, as we compared our plans to catch the next checkpoint, what time our runners were aiming for, how the weather was shaping up, and so forth.
We may clap them along, cheer and whoop to get them through a tough stretch. But we spectators cannot compare to those who run, and run again, and just keep going. “Boston Strong” shirts are proudly sported – veterans of an infinitely harder course than this one.
No matter how hard we yell, how many run past us, how many stories of all-weather training, injury and nipple chafing we hear, we cannot understand.
There is an element of cruelty in watching the end of such a run. Sunning ourselves and clapping half-heartedly, we relish those who struggle in the final stretch, who limp, who pause to retch and heave before stumbling on. It must be hard for them, it must. Else we would all do it.
But there is a great sense of camaraderie too – we want these runners to stumble so that we can cheer louder, clap harder – we want them boosted by our praise, so we may share vicariously in their victory.
It’s hard not to find it heartwarming. Parents – and grandparents – joined by children determined to “help” with the last stretch; especial praise to those who manage to hoist toddlers onto their shoulders before crossing the line. A father and son – the father a wheelchair competitor who has lost his strength, pushed for the final miles by his son. Those who are inspired to sprint on sight of “100m to go!”. Those who are spurred on by shouts from friends, those who find the energy to raise their hands in proud defiance.
It is an inspiration to see them cross the line, hours later, exultant in their conquest of the course, the weather, their injuries, their chafed nipples, the road, of themselves. Four hours – or three, or five – just you and the road. Despite the thousands running with you, despite the dedicated supporters, despite everything – you run for yourself, for the road, for your few hours of freedom. Just keep running.
It’s almost enough to make you grab a pair of runners and join them.
Maybe next year.