16 October 2006

On the other side

I'm on the other side. The other side of 13.1 miles, that is. I ran the half marathon yesterday, and it was a racing experience like no other. There were thousands of us, herded into starting gates like cattle. Drums beat, runners shifted in expectation. We walked forward a few steps, stopped, and suddenly were jogging. There was no starting gun, no announcement (or perhaps I was too far back to hear anything), so the realization that I was really committed didn't occur until after the fact. But we were off, and several hours of endurance had begun.

Running is generally a very solitary sport. Many go at it alone, pounding the pavement near their homes or skipping through parks. Some have running partners, even running clubs, but achievement is solely dependent on the individual. On a team, if you're having a bad day the others may be able to compensate. With running, it's all you, and only you.

For this reason, I think that runner's solidarity is very strong in events like this. Runners, even in large packs, are generally gracious with each other. There's a strong sense of supporting other's determination and this allows faster runners to pass with relative ease. In fact, I think it was easier to maneuver through four competitors-in-a-row than it is to get by a group of people walking down a shopping street. One man - due to injury or disease, I'm not sure - was completing the run with crutches, and as runners passed him, they applauded his efforts. And we all enjoyed the thrill of taking over the streets. Even if just for a few hours (and a hefty entrance fee) and with only our legs to carry us, we stopped traffic all over Amsterdam. How's that for building solidarity?

Even the people on the sidelines were very encouraging. Some looked directly into my eyes and shouted encouragement, alternating in Dutch and English. Small children bounced excitedly along the route, thrusting out their arms for a highly-desired "high five" from the runners. Moments of excitement came when spectators spotted their loved ones. My favorite was when we were crossing the Amstel river for the second time: a girl of about seven spotted her mother on the route, and screamed "Mama! Mama! Mama!" with great excitement for several minutes. Mama was pleased and happy, as were her bemused neighbors.

Spectators aren't always on the side of the runners, however. Some waited by the side, angry and irritated that they were being held up. They looked for a moment to safely cross, tapping their feet and checking their watches. Some gave up courtesy entirely and simply darted directly into the path of fatigued athletes. One man pushed his baby stroller into the path of a runner, who lost his footing, lost his pace, and angrily shoved the man before continuing the run.

Maybe this happens in every race, or maybe it was just due to the fact that the half marathon took place hours after the "real thing" was finished. Indeed, I sometimes felt like we were running an afterthought. The majority of the markers were in place for the marathon, and then a smaller sign was placed a few hundred yards later (oh, yeah, half-marathoners, you're at kilometer 10). Perhaps the spectators also felt this and lost their patience with the whole event.

Adrenaline pulled me through, but really kicked in in the last few miles. I felt my hamstrings go but refused to give into the pain. The run through the Vondelpark was like a dream, dodging through slower runners and totally giving into the rhythm in my iPod (thanks to the amazing beats of Podrunner). In the final dash to the Olympic Stadium, I was on a runner's high like never before. I could no longer feel my legs or even hear the crowds around me. I was flying, with no pain, and was determined to finish strong.

I finished with practically the same time as the winner - of the marathon, that is. Not the half. And now I sit, with pain throbbing through my legs, and wonder in amazement how someone can literally run twice the distance I did in the same amount of time. Never mind. It was my first, and I am thrilled to be on the other side.

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