Channeling the Spirit of the Marathon: Hope Going Forward

Berlin Marathon - Young Fans
Young fans at the Berlin marathon

Pump your arms, your legs will follow…

— Marathon advice. Life advice?

As I struggle to process what happened at the Boston Marathon yesterday, I wonder: “How is it that we humans invest so much energy in our own destruction?

Then I consider what’s at the heart of the spirit of marathons, and the reasons why crowds of people were gathered at the finish line in the first place. Through this process, I attempt to restore some of my lost hope in humanity, because I believe if we lose that marathon spirit, that’s when we’ve really lost.

Marathons and the Human Spirit

I have an oddly emotional relationship with long-distance races considering that I’m not an avid runner, that I’ve never once run a race.

Dan introduced me to the world of running. I remember cheering him on during a hailstorm at the Prague Marathon 9 years ago. We have friends who are runners, some of whom we cheered on less than ten days ago at the Berlin Half Marathon. I’ve stood out in all shades of weather along the edge of race courses. What’s most remarkable, though, is that I find myself cheering my heart out for people I’ve never laid eyes on in my life and will likely never see again. I’ve fought back inexplicable tears and emotions watching complete strangers pursue their potential, wage their struggles.

I know I’m not alone. If you’ve ever been to one of these races, you probably know what I mean.

Dan tells a story of a spectator who ran beside him for a couple of blocks in Prague when he’d clearly hit the wall around mile 23. The supporter clapped his hands and offered advice for marathons and life the world over, “Pump your arms, your legs will follow.”

Why on earth would someone do this?

Because self-destruction be damned – this too, is the human spirit.

Boston Marathon: Bombs, Stories of Hope

When I heard the news yesterday about how bombs targeted the finish line of the Boston Marathon, my view of humanity took a hit. How could anyone deliberately target something built of goodness, of kindness — an event that exemplifies people working together, cheering on strangers, celebrating hard work and potential?

Clearly, those bombs were not only meant to harm a large group of people, but also to wipe out our spirit.

Not long after the incident, however, stories of hope emerged. Of people helping people. Of runners continuing to run after 26 miles — not only to finish but also to make it to the hospital to give blood. Of people bringing blankets and food, of people placing their names on a list to open their homes to runners needing shelter.

Every time I think we’re down for the count, I find an overwhelming resilience in humanity. It’s one that finds energy in the collective effort it takes to pick ourselves back up, to help and support each other. Perhaps I’m buoyed by the concept that the greatest measure of who we are is not in how we respond to the favorable wind, but how we respond in times of difficulty.

Amidst all the questions surrounding what happened in Boston yesterday afternoon, I want to shine a light on that spirit, the marathon spirit, the spirit for all long roads ahead.

Channeling the Spirit of the Marathon: Five Lessons

What is it about marathons that stir my emotions? No matter where, they are infused with the best of what the human spirit has to offer. Hope, support, potential: we celebrate the effort and achievement of not only the people we know, but also the people we don’t.

Consider the beauty of this. And recognize how these lessons learned might apply to everyday life. In this way, I wish that every day could be race day.

1) Cheer people you don’t know.

For some reason, walls come down on race day and we have no inhibitions cheering on someone we don’t really know, some of the same complete strangers we might otherwise disregard or avoid. We look someone we don’t know in the eye, and we want – no, almost will – them to keep going, to do better. We create connections, however fleeting, and lasting good will. We may never see each other again. But that’s OK; the impression of that moment remains.

Don’t go blindly, but beware of putting up walls that prevent us from celebrating one another and lending a helping hand when it’s needed.

2) Defy stereotypes.

The runners that often bring me to tears are the atypical ones, the unlikely suspects. Perhaps the 65 or 75-year-old man (or woman) who demonstrates that activity and goal setting need not end as we grow older.

Or there’s the middle-aged woman who does not look the role of prototypical runner. You know she has poured hundreds of hours into training, likely juggling a job, kids and other commitments, to run and finish.

That’s determination. And if that isn’t inspiration, I don’t know what is.

Imagine if we all did something a little different than what we “should” do?

3) Push the boundaries.

So many people running marathons are people who never imagined “..that they could ever do it.” That they were capable of such endurance, perseverance. They allowed themselves to dream, and perhaps they had the support of others in that dream. Marathons often shed light on that great expectation of life, our potential.

What thing seems so far off right now that maybe shouldn’t be?

4) Celebrate hard work.

As we all know, dreaming is not the same as doing. People prepare themselves for months on end for every type of race. They navigate commitments, aches, pains, ice packs and days when they feel they cannot move. But when they are out on that course, we celebrate their discipline and the effort that brought them there to the start and will carry them to the finish.

Hard work shouldn’t be a bad word; it’s something we should celebrate in light of accomplishment, and for its own sake.

5) Build personal and shared motivation.

On one level, long-distance races are an individual sport — each runner works with and against himself only. But those crowds of supporters – other runners as well as those on the sidelines – are the magic sauce of motivation that alter a seemingly obvious equation. This is not zero sum. Their presence is good for each and for all of us as a whole.

We can indeed be greater than the sum of our parts.

Even though I didn’t know anyone injured or killed in yesterday’s blast, I still feel devastated, particularly as my thoughts go to the people impacted and their families. This was deliberate destruction brought to the foot of what should only have been a joyous and hopeful event.

As we pick up and reassemble the pieces as best we can, maybe we can use the spirit of the marathon as a guide — good will, community, and perseverance — for how we respond to tragedies like this.

As we pump our arms, so too our legs will follow.

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Comments

  1. Sutapa says

    Completely agree that as spectators, we will people to do better. And it is such generosity of spirit! For this to happen at such an event is horrible, just horrible….some of the best people on earth, most generous were injured or killed yesterday.

  2. Sutapa says

    Also agree with all the other points….building personal motivation from friends is so good for such a tough sport.

  3. says

    As (former!) marathon runners, Caanan and I were both left feeling especially contemplative after hearing about what went down in Boston. I love that you found/shared such powerful life lessons based on the spirit of a marathon.

  4. Don says

    Thanks Audrey for sharing your thoughts during such a difficult and sensitive time. The spirit of the marathon as a metaphor for life is such an uplifting thought especially during these sad times. Having occasionally followed the comments of your post readers I’m sure many of them instantly identified with the advice – pump your arms and your legs will follow. Now I’m thinking Audrey and Dan and Kilamanjaro and how many times this advice must have applied as you and your friends made your way to the summit. Cynicism and despair are understandable reactions in these times. We need gentle and healing thoughts to soften these tendencies. You have given them to us.

  5. says

    Thank you for this. Boston is my home. I have cheered runners on at the base of Heartbreak Hill going back the 20 years we’ve lived here. While everyone loves seeing the elite runners pass, it’s the ordinary folks who get the most love and support. There are people who run in costumes, wearing silly hats, in wedding gear, tutus, and juggling. There are old and young runners, people pushing wheelchairs and strollers for the course.

    It’s an amazing event full of thousands of stories of personal triumph. That is what I will hold on to.

  6. says

    I’ve felt myself drawn to travel blogs I follow since the Boston Marathon bombings, looking for words of wisdom from other wanderlusters. So far, your essay has been the most uplifting and thoughtful. IMHO. Write on!

  7. says

    @Sutapa: I’ve been heartened to read several articles about the spirit of marathons and especially the good will of the people cheering for hours in every kind of weather. Let’s hope that we can keep this spirit alive, especially as we sort through what happened and why.

    @Jenna: You’re welcome. It was my way of processing and focusing. And thank you for linking back to this in your lovely post.

    @Kent: Although I’m not a marathon runner (Dan is), I still got really emotional thinking about what happened in Boston in light of what joyous and hopeful events marathons usually are. So glad that this post resonated and provided a bit of positive focus in these sad times.

    @Don: And thank you for such a thoughtful and hopeful comment. There’s so much that marathons can teach us about being inclusive and support. And when we apply that to our friends, families and even strangers, those mountains and “it’s not possible” suddenly become within reach. Pump your arms, your legs will follow. I hope this message continues even after the people who were responsible are caught.

    @LJ: I’m also a sucker for the ordinary folks in races, the ones that surprise you and defy those stereotypes or boxes we put them in. Each marathon has so many thousands of stories of personal triumph and there are thousands of marathons each – imagine if we could bottle that spirit and energy. I have a feeling that next year the Boston marathon might be even bigger.

    @Suzanne: Thank you for your kind comment and I’m so glad this piece was uplifting. Really appreciate it.

  8. says

    I can’t help but get teary-eyed each time I read posts or news about the Boston incident. The stories of heroes doing various acts of kindness made my heart swell with joy despite the tragedy. Because of these heroes, my faith to humanity has been restored.

  9. says

    Audrey
    Beautiful post. Sorry for the late reply.

    Thank you for a wonderful piece focusing on the incredible Human Spirit, breaking stereotypes, pushing our boundraies and that Positive comes from negative. What I saw afterwards were all the acts of kindness extended. I LOVE how you framed marathons as life lessons; indeed. Sending HUGS to you and letting you know I’m running in the Color Run this year; first time doing an organized race. My goal is to do a half marathon in the next 3 years.

  10. says

    @Ces: Like you, I was also teary-eyed reading accounts from Boston. But there is so much kindness and goodness shown during this tragedy that this does instill faith in humanity and the good we can show to each other when times are tough.

    @Kristin: Thanks so much for your fantastic comment! The idea of positive coming from negative is sometimes hard to believe when things seem so, so bad. But I do believe in this. And we’ve been shown this over and over again when people do incredible acts beyond what they could have imagined when faced with adversity. Congrats on running the Color Run this year! I’m also more motivated than ever to train for a half marathon and be able to finish it. Maybe we can keep each other accountable in training for it :)

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