Every single person who finishes a race has a story.
A few weeks ago, I saw thousands of stories at Ironman Arizona (another post is coming about one person in particular). Early yesterday morning, I had coffee with a friend who finished her first 5k. Then I went and worked at the California International Marathon finish line, where the 15-year-old women’s course record was broken by two minutes and the men’s winner shaved half a minute off his personal best time.
But the winners are just two people; I can promise that every one of the 9,000 runners who signed up for CIM had a reason they were trying to cross the finish line. I wish I could capture every single one of them — as well as the stories of those who cheered and waited outside on a December weekend morning. Even now, less than 24 hours after the race, I’m forgetting the stories of friends and strangers. But here are a few, in incomplete sentences, because that’s how the day felt as each person moved in and out of my life.
The man who finished in the 2:20s (that’s under six minutes per mile) and shouted for joy, followed by a man crying for “10 seconds, just 10!” The man who waited a minute for his friend to cross the finish line, held out his arms so his friend could jump into them, and then both collapsed because neither had enough blood in their heads to realize an exhausted runner could not catch another exhausted runner — but they laughed and were fine.
Nicole, the girl I know on Twitter and from her blog, who was seconds away from qualifying for the Boston Marathon when she collapsed mere yards from the finish line. I had seen her husband enter the finish area (he had run it so he gained entrance) and had a medal ready for her, but then she fell and could not get up. The crowds could see the clock, and they realized what it meant to run 26.2 miles and have only a few steps left. She kept fighting to get up, but she could not. Her husband ran back across the finish line, a race official followed, and they helped her across the line as a wheelchair arrived. She missed Boston by 27 seconds.
Michael Wardian, who ran the North Face 50-miler the previous day in crazy mud and hills, then ran CIM in 2:33. He crossed the finish line, greeted some race officials with a grin, then waited for a man who proceeded to break the master’s record. Then when the still-grinning Wardian finally reached us volunteers with the medals, he graciously put up with my “You’re awesome! I saw you break the treadmill half marathon in Pittsburgh!” babbling while I put a medal around his neck and got a sweaty high-five in return. (Only high-five of the day — it caught me off guard, actually.) I later saw on Twitter that he went hiking after the race.
My friend Tricia, who had never seen a race in her entire life but was working and had an all-access pass. She was a few steps away from the winners. She saw all the people in the medical tent. She was amazed and speechless.
One of the pacers who just finished Ironman Cozumel the previous weekend, third in her age group, and still ran a perfect race at CIM.
Jana, my friend who’s had so many ups and downs but finished the race just after a brief stop to hug her 1-year-old miracle of a baby.
Alisa, the friend of a friend who’s now my friend, because of the marvels of social media. She beat her time by more than an hour.
Chris, who set a new personal best five weeks ago, but then did it again yesterday by another five minutes — and qualifyied for Boston.
Leslie and Janet, who run race after race, as “Team Ish,” even when one of them isn’t there.
The man who had a massive banner made reading, “Crystal, will you marry me?” and attached it to PVC pipe so it towered over his head. He coordinated ahead of time with race officials and was allowed into the finish area when his girlfriend’s last update said she had crossed the 20-mile mark. He waited for her with what I can only describe as adorable hope and excitement as other finishers passed by him. One woman said, “Good luck!” Finally, his girlfriend appeared in the finish chute. She crossed the finish line — and didn’t see her boyfriend or his massive sign. Friends stopped her, she turned and shouted, “OH!” And we all laughed so hard at her complete shock. Her boyfriend got down on one knee, and she most definitely said yes.
The girl who did a cartwheel at the finish line.
The woman who collapsed but crawled across the finish line.
The ones who were so excited about qualifying for Boston. And the devastated ones who just missed it. (The thing is, I know they’ll try again. And again. Until they make it. And the victory will be that much sweeter.)
The blind runners who placed their trust in guides to lead them over the 26.2-mile course. The girl with a prosthetic leg who finished before thousands of other two-legged runners, as well as millions of other people who have never tried to run at all.
The fellow volunteer who just did her first Ironman in Arizona, so maybe we saw each other and didn’t know it. CIM was her first marathon in the 1990s. Twenty years older, her Ironman marathon time was faster than her stand-alone marathon time. She raised $15,000 for lymphoma research last year in honor of a family member, and she finds out this month if she gets a charity slot to the Ironman Kona World Championship. To get there, she’d have to raise $75,000 — “Oh, I can do that. It means that much to me,” she said.
And my friend Norman, who’s checked in on me countless times in recent months to make sure I’m OK. He’s also proven to be pretty consistent at thinking he’s going to run slower than he actually does. “I’m not trained; I had the race entry, so I might as well use it,” he kept saying. A PR (personal record) was not in his plan, so he was thinking sub-2:50. But stranger things have happened to all of us… At mile 20, I got his last alert, did the quick math, and said to my volunteer friend, “Um, yeah, he’s on PR pace.” At that point, I calculated around a 2:42 pace. But the big question: Would he slow down like he did in a marathon earlier this year (even though he won the race outright)? No, he did not — he sped up. He appeared as the clock hit 2:40, and my fellow volunteers moved over a bit as I started hollering. Yeah, that “not a PR” became a five-minute PR, qualifying him for the All-Army Marathon Team in the process. Sometimes amazing things happen when you just run.
There are so many more stories. I’ll want to come back and include them — and I may. But for now, I will just click the “Publish” button, because I wanted to write this while the images were fresh in my mind. I wanted to capture the bits of memories and emotions and feelings. I want to run.