“There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.” Franklin D. Roosevelt.
In January, I made a list of my 2015 running goals. One of them was to be a race volunteer. I’ve always been impressed with all the people who wake up at 5 am to go and stand for hours at a race just to hand water to runners by, continuously cheering and shouting affirmations like “you got this.”
When I decided to put volunteering at a race on my 2015 list, I knew that I’d have to go back to the Malibu Half-Marathon to do it. I did my first half there on November 11th, 2012…registering to cross that finish line started the journey towards finding myself. Actually, when I decided to take up running, I wasn’t even aware that I was lost….that I needed to find me…that I was doing a furious doggy paddle to stay afloat rather than calmly floating….that I was going through life breathing at high altitude despite living at sea level….
I looked up the race date for this year and registered as a volunteer a full 9 months in advance, marking the date as booked on my iPhone calendar. On November 15th, 2015, almost 3 years to the day after crossing my first finish line, I stood on the other side of it with a few other volunteers, the race co-director Alberto Perusset, and a thousand shiny medals that we took turns placing around finishers’ necks.
Here are some of the faces of the people who I saw cross the finish line:
Of course, I witnessed the #1,2, and 3 male finishers…. the #1,2, and 3 female finishers… I saw the #5-10 male and female finishers who were happy to place in the top 10… I saw the #4 and #11 finishers who were un-arguably fast but then disappointed upon discovering that they didn’t make the top 3 and top 10 respectively. But much more moving than seeing the people at the top, I saw everyone else.
I saw a group of over 20 women in their matching shirts from their local cross fit running club, each running their own race at their own pace, but all waiting and cheering together at the finish line until every last one of them had crossed it.
I saw the young man who ran while wearing a purple shirt with a picture of his father that said, “My dad, my hero, was taken by pancreatic cancer.”
I saw the oldest participant, an 82 year-old Asian male. A large group of his family members ran as well and crossed the finish line well before him, each at their own pace, and then they ran back and all re-ran a good part of the race with him in order to cross the finish line with him…. holding up his arms and cheering him on, having a moving family celebration.
I saw many disappointed runners who unexpectedly injured themselves along the course, yet hobbled across the finish line; ending with a much longer time than what they had hoped for, but finishing none the less.
I saw 2 little kids who asked me if they could each have a medal to put around their mom and grandmother’s necks. I watched them squeal and jump up and down as their loved ones crossed, putting the medals around their necks and getting drowned in kisses.
I saw the dozen women who traveled from Texas and ran in matching “Jo Jo’s Brave Girls” shirts in honor of their late friend Jo Anne Franzenburg. Jo ran the Malibu half in 2012 and 2013, and passed from cancer this past July. They were simultaneously happy and sad as they ran their collective miles for her, celebrating her life. The women from Texas challenged Jo’s 73 year-old mom to walk the 13.1 miles, and she did, crossing the finish line in four and a half hours.
I saw the triumph in the faces of the runners who were happy to finish in just under the 2 hour mark… the disappointment in the faces of the ones who were going for the sub-2 and were just over that by 1-2 minutes.
I saw the father who did the whole race while pushing his daughter in a jogging stroller, and asked that I put the medal around her neck instead.
I saw the slow and steady determined older women who crossed the 13.1 mile finish line in 3 hours and 35 minutes, and then grabbed on to the handsome Alberto, the race co-director as he put the medal around her neck and said, “I’ve never been so happy to see anyone. Please hold me and don’t let me fall down.”
I saw the person who ran across the line and then stumbled into the crowd dry-heaving, while multiple people came to her rescue….For every struggling stumbling finisher, I saw many more who ran across with exhilaration, throwing their hands up in the air in a gesture that said, “Yes…I can!”
I saw those last few walkers, who despite sudden onset of gusts of wind causing a mini sand-storm requiring an earlier than anticipated take down of some of the race set up, continued on their journey against the elements. The co-race director Alberto Perusset, a barefoot running legend who has done over 100 marathons himself, patiently waiting for them with medals around his arm leaned over to me and said, “I admire these people more than the elite runners…what they are doing is very difficult and the real accomplishment.”
I saw tears…. tears of triumph, pain, grief, relief, gratitude, and joy.
In order to stick to my commitment to volunteer at this race, I missed a few other running opportunities for myself. In this weekend when I missed out on running myself, I gained a perspective from the other side that made me fall in love with running again and again. I saw the faces of a thousand runners, each on their own running and life journey, who have discovered that breathing at sea level is much easier than breathing in thin air.
**Other than passing out medals, I also helped direct parking traffic in the morning, set up water and snacks at the finish line tables, and helped with packing up after the race. A recap of the race in the Malibu Times: Forever Runners Hosts Malibu International Half Marathon. A little report on Alberto completing his 100th marathon, barefoot no less: “Barefoot Alberto” Completes 100th Marathon.