The Reluctant Race Spectator
A competitor learns another way to appreciate the sport when she’s confined to the Boston sidelines instead of running with her friend.
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What is it about standing on the sidelines that makes us feel so anxious? Perhaps it is the fear of missing out on the thrill of competition. Maybe it’s the jealousy that creeps in while watching others shine, or the idea that it’s not enough to cheer someone on when you want to be part of the action. Or perhaps it’s the thought that you’ve been through so much together, yet you can’t step through those race moments with them.
On April 13th, 2019, as I packed my bags and boarded a plane to Boston to watch my friend run her first Boston Marathon, I grappled with these familiar feelings.
The Uber driver asked if we were running the race. “She is,” I said, pointing at Heather. A pang stabbed me in the gut. Envy?
The servers at the restaurants asked if we were in town for the race. “Heather’s running,” I would respond. Another pang. I snapped photos of my friend. I helped her pick out a souvenir. I waved goodbye as she departed the hotel the morning of the race. Pang, pang, pang.
We were supposed to stand on the starting line for Boston together. Actually, marathoning was my idea to begin with.
I’ve been running competitively since the first day I trudged through a cross country race in the seventh grade, but it wasn’t until two years ago, in the middle of an average run, I suddenly committed to enter a marathon. This wasn’t the first time I’d entertained the idea, but it was the first time I was actually in a position to start training for one.
When I finished that run, I grabbed my phone and fired off a text to my friend and former college teammate, Heather: Would you run a marathon with me?
Her response: Oh gosh, Linds, a marathon? Followed shortly by: Okay!
Over the next few months we traded training progress and discussed our goals via constant texts and over lengthy phone calls. It was Heather who pushed us to shoot for a Boston qualifying time, and as the race date approached my excitement and anxiety grew.
Nearly a year after my decision, we grasped each other’s hands tightly as we stood in the start corral of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. For fifteen miles my friend and I ran side-by-side. Then, mid-way through the race, she said to me, “Okay Linds, I think I’m going to speed up now.” Post-race I sought my running buddy while marveling at the feat I’d accomplished. I’d finished in 3:30:14, twelve minutes behind my friend but nearly four minutes faster than the Boston qualifying standard (for my age group at the time) of 3:35:00.
Months later, when Boston released its final entry cutoffs, Heather got in with her time of 3:18:16, but my time missed entry by six seconds.
I’d told Heather that even if I didn’t get in, I would still come to Boston to cheer her on. In the months following my rejection I thought about this promise often, occasionally regretting my decision. As happy as I was for my friend, I knew it would be hard to watch her race while I simply observed.
I reflected on the races I’ve sat out in my life. When I was in junior high, I hobbled across a field with a sore ankle in order to yell and scream for my teammates, but jealousy bloomed from a desire to be leading the pack. While cheering on teammates at track meets in college, I would sometimes find myself wishing I could run their race—despite the fact that I had my own events to run.
But while I’ve certainly felt my fair share of anxiety while sitting out, I can also recall some of my greatest moments of joy while watching someone I love cross their finish line. I watched my brother run his collegiate races, filled with pride and excitement when he set a new PR. I once snapped a photo of some teammates basking in each other’s accomplishments because they’d all ran incredible legs of a relay; the happiness written on their faces mirrored what I was feeling in that moment.
Despite the hundreds of miles ran side-by-side, pre-race meals, or encouraging pep-talks, there comes a time when it is someone else’s race to run alone and there’s nothing you can do but scream your head off from the sidelines. It doesn’t have to mean you aren’t part of the action.
Still wishing I was standing in Hopkinton with my friend on this overcast morning, I took my spot along the course to wait. I watched one of the push rim racers come through… the crowd roared. My eyes welled with tears and emotion clogged my throat. Excitement charged the air.
Suddenly I realized it had been a long time since I was able to see a race from this perspective. Observing from the crowd offers a unique experience I haven’t often been a part of.
After the elites came through, spectators began pulling out their phones to track their athletes. As I did the same, another realization occurred to me: I do have a stake in this race. The many miles ran together, the long talks about struggles and successes, and even that initial invite to run a marathon: those things led Heather to the starting line for Boston. My being a spectator on the course of her journey is every bit as important to me as lacing up for my own races.
I scoured the field of runners as they passed my vantage point. I glanced constantly at my phone and worked to calculate the time my runner would be passing. All of the sudden she was right in front of me, her gaze scanning the crowd.
“HEATHER!” I yelled. Her eyes lit up, she smiled from ear to ear, and she waved. “I’m so proud of y-” Emotion clogged my throat and tears welled in my eyes as she ran by toward Boylston and the Boston finish line.
At that moment it became very clear that I can experience just as much being a supporter as I can being the competitor. Heather and I were two individual runners, responsible for our own success, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still a team.
I don’t think I’ll ever lose my competitive spirit or my love of racing. I’ll probably never stop wishing I could jump in when I am forced to watch a race go by without me. Next year, I plan to be on the start line of the Boston Marathon. But I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a fan, to see the community that comes together to support the athletes, and to be Heather’s teammate once again.