Finding Our Humanity Is a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Eddie Izzard, brilliant comedian and all-around credit to the human race, is running a marathon a day in January. It’s a fundraiser, each marathon being live streamed to the world, with the proceeds going to multiple charities. And as if 31 full marathons in 31 days isn’t enough, Eddie’s performing a live stand up gig after each one. It’s called, “A Run For Hope 2021.” But that’s more like a subtitle, as it’s part of Eddie’s overarching aim to …

Make Humanity Great Again

Personally, I don’t think there’s a much better vessel out there than marathons when it comes to showing humanity’s potential greatness. There are certainly a tonne of YouTube videos attesting to just that.

My opinion doesn’t come from videos, though. It’s personal experience. Not that I’ve ever run a marathon. Fuck that noise! I hate running. But my ex-husband was a marathoner, and I acted as his Sherpa, the community’s term for a runner’s support person. Essentially, I’d carry a backpack filled with water, energy drinks, snacks, extra clothes, and first aid gear, and make my way to various points along the marathon route, where I’d wait for him to go running by. If he needed something, I’d trot alongside him while I dug it out of the bag, I’d take anything from him that he didn’t want anymore (like gloves or sunglasses), and provide a little moral support. Then, when he’d run on, I’d head for a subway station or bus stop, or I’d race along the city sidewalks taking a shortcut I’d mapped out earlier, leapfrogging my way ahead of him, to provide support again at some point further along the course.

This led to long spans of standing in the same spot, waiting for my runner to appear, and fulfilling my second role as a marathon spectator: making some noise. By the end of the day, my hands would be numb from clapping and high-fives, and my voice would be a bit ragged from cheering.

That’s a small price to pay to the runners – many of whom have told me that sometimes the crowd is the only thing that keeps them going – considering how much they gave me in return.

There are three incidents in particular that stand out.

Number three on the list happened at the Canadian International Marathon in Toronto. It was pretty young at the time, only a few years old under its new organizers, and it showed at the finish. Most marathons are very strict about keeping spectators off the course, but not this one. The final kilometre or so essentially loops around a central green space, and all kinds of spectators who’d been hanging in the park all day were jumping out into the road to join their runner as they crossed the finish line.

It was the only time I staked out a place at the actual finish line, and I watched as a young woman crossed, tears streaming down her face as she struggled to make sure her number was still visible while holding a baby. I can’t imagine either going through childbirth or running a marathon. The idea of doing both in as short a time as she clearly had filled me with more than a little bit of awe.

Number two was also in Toronto, at the same marathon, although not the same year. As I stood on the sidelines, whooping and hollering and clapping, my attention was drawn by a woman standing some distance along the sidewalk with a baby in a stroller, and a little girl I’d say was about five years old holding a water bottle.

The girl was extraordinarily quiet and focused for one so young, and the reason why became clear when a man came running up the street and veered off towards the sidewalk and the threesome standing there. The instant his direction changed, the girl stepped off the sidewalk and made a beeline for him, the water bottle held out at arms length. When they met he took the bottle, had a drink, and handed it back to her. Then he bent down to kiss her, but she already had the bottle hugged to her chest and was racing back to the sidewalk as fast as she could, not seeing her mother gesturing for her to turn around, or her father trotting after her.

I can just hear what had been drilled into her head in the lead up to the big day: “Daddy’s going to be busy, so he may not be able to pay as much attention to you as he usually would.” And then she was appointed water carrier to keep her occupied, and by God, she had a job to do and she was going to do it!

Top spot on the list, though, comes from a time when I failed my own runner. It was in Chicago, at a marathon where participation had exploded from the previous year, and the infrastructure simply wasn’t there to support the increased numbers. Stuck in a traffic jam, my ex had jumped out of the car on the highway to run to the start line. By the time I’d parked and made my way to there, the marathon was well underway. I tried to figure out where I needed to get to, but the map was in miles and I struggle to do the conversion to kilometres in my head. Plus the map was quite basic, and I began to question its accuracy as I made my way to what I hoped would be a good spot.

So, I turned around and headed to the post-race area, this one in a park, where runners and their friends and family can reunite. I was the first person there, and settled in beneath the flag bearing the first letter of my ex’s last name, next to a paved pathway. While the park was still almost empty, I got to see the marathon’s earliest finishers walk by, silver foil blankets wrapped around their shoulders to keep them warm.

Not all of them were alone. One such foil-wrapped young man was accompanied by an older man whom I’d guess was his father. The runner walked with a defeated air, his head hung low, his father keeping pace, somewhat stiffly with his hands in his pockets. The young man stopped suddenly, and his shoulders began to shake as he started crying. His father wrapped his arms around him and held him.

That alone brought tears to my eyes. But a moment later, another runner walking along the path reached them. He stopped as well, and stood for at least a minute, stroking the crying young man’s back and murmuring in his ear. I assumed they knew each other. But the look exchanged between the father and the second runner just before he continued on proved me wrong. He was a stranger who took a moment out of his day to comfort someone in pain.

Eventually, the young man lifted his head from his father’s shoulder and they continued on their way. Some time later, my ex finished his run and joined me, where I got him set up with his recovery drink and snack, and made sure he kept warm. (He forgave me for not being there on the route.)

Those are just the standout stories. I could go on for ages. Eddie’s right. From heartbreak at seeing children running in memory of a younger sibling who died, to admiration of those driving on when they’ve clearly reached their limit, to respect for the volunteers who keep the entire event running smoothly, marathons do, indeed, highlight just how great humanity can be.

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