The human side of a race – where strangers are friends.
The Humanity Race – by Alice da Silva
I think the first time I became aware of him was after the 21.1km. I remember as I ran past a group of about 4 people, hearing a joking voice saying, ‘That girl is running too fast’. I thought he was talking about me loud enough so I’d hear, I looked back and that was the beginning of the rest of our in-race mutual support.
From then on, we kept on overtaking each other. Me alone, and him with his group. Each time we would overtake each other, we’d exchange some joke or supportive comment. At first it was something like ‘We meet again’. I remember after a number of encounters, saying to him ‘We will finish together’ and he replied ‘It seems so’.
At one point when I overtook, he said ‘Now you look angry!’ I replied ‘I need Coke, I’m in a hurry to get to the next Coke table’. He said that they should just have Coke at the end of the race, in that case. Sometime after the Coke table, he overtook me and said, ‘I have good news for you, there’s more Coke up ahead’.
I think it was sometime after that Coke table or another one when he passed me and for a long time after that I didn’t see him or his group. I was a little disappointed, thinking that I must have fallen too far behind. I took it as a reflection of me starting to lose pace as I got more fatigued.
Then I think when there were less than 10km to go as I struggled along, I thought I saw him. He was alone this time, and I wasn’t sure if it was him. I had recognised him earlier because of the group he was with. But now it was just him, and I remember noticing he had something around the bottom of his right knee, it looked like a thin blue sweatband. Now I was really tired, and starting to doubt that I’d make the finish in the cut-off qualifying time. Maybe he felt the same. As I ran past, I said something about us still being able to make it. He was more tired than before and didn’t seem as convinced.
I don’t remember much of the last 5kms, except that I was really tired and beginning to face the possibility of not making the cut-off.
I remember passing him again in the last stretch, just before the straight downhill to the finish. I said something like ‘We can still make it, let’s push’. He was walking.
I was at that stage trying to run faster every now and then, but then needing to walk a little. Then we were in the downhill straight, not far from the finish but the clock was speeding on, faster than my legs, it seemed. From my previous comments, he knew I was trying to make it and he knew how little time there was left. While I was walking, I heard his steps come up behind me. He had gone from walking to catch up to me. He put his hand on my back, urging me to run on. I pushed on and ran, he fell back again. I ran awhile, then the tiredness made me want to walk. Again he came from behind me and this time I started running again. We ran together, time was running out. The streets were lined with people who had finished the race. Some were getting back to their cars parked on the sidewalks, with their supporters. Many people were now shouting ‘ You can make it, run!’ ‘You’re almost there, go faster’. Some were just looking. I remember passing a group of elite- looking athletes at the side of the road looking on. They shouted ‘You’ll make it, run faster, just push harder’. I pushed harder, ran faster, and felt a little light headed. We were so close, we were running. Then I heard the gun. We had missed the cut-off. I started walking. He was walking too. He was ahead of me. Then I ran up to him and said ‘Let’s finish strong!’ and we ran a few more steps, till we handed in our tabs.
I ran another marathon two weeks later. And when the doubt and fatigue crept in, I thought about what a difference it makes to have someone push you. My leg muscles cramped and my knee hurt. I did a lot of walking at a great cost time wise.
My next marathon was a month later. It was going well and my time was looking comfortable enough for a sub-5 finish. About 10km from the finish I was taking a walk break. I heard a loud voice from behind shout in military style ‘20713’. It was my licence number pinned to my back. I looked back and saw a group of about 6 runners. The loud voice shouted ‘Playtime is over. It’s time to run!’ I started running. One of the group ran up next to me and asked ‘Do you know who that is?’ I looked back at the group, thinking he was referring to the loud voice. He asked again if I knew who that was, that number? I realised he meant the 20713. I smiled and said ‘Yes, it’s me’. I ran on, grateful for some support. I have come to realise that when my legs and spirit are tired and I take a walk break, I possibly get slightly lost in that space and don’t resume running as soon as I could. Yes, I am fatigued, but perhaps I am able to do more than just walk and think.
The man with the loud voice was pacing his group. It seemed they were running nine lamp posts and walking one. I could hear the counting up and the countdowns. I kept running, telling myself I would try not to fall behind. Now and then I would take a walk break, and it wouldn’t be long before they came up behind me, with the loud voice shouting my number. He shouted that I should stay ahead, and I agreed, knowing that would help me. And so most of the last 10km went that way. Along the way, I often heard his loud voice shout at other runners struggling and walking along – some had their name on their back, and he’d use their name in encouragement, as he urged them on.
I was really fatigued now and the walk breaks seemed more and more necessary. But whenever I walked, it seemed like I had barely started when his group started approaching from behind. The loud voice would say something like ‘I am here, I am coming’ meaning I needed to run again to stay ahead. I ran on again, wishing I could walk longer, but knowing that I needed to keep running. At one point there was a busy road to cross and as I crossed while the traffic officer held up traffic, I hoped the traffic would be allowed after me so that the group would be delayed a little more so I’d have more time to walk. I looked back, and saw that they had crossed too. They were behind me, I carried on running.
During another walk break the loud voice shouted that I had to keep running ‘We have an agreement – you have to stay ahead’. I was grateful, and carried on running. When there were less than 4 kms to go, I was really tired. I wanted to walk more, but the loud voice with the group kept me going. Two kilometres from the finish I heard him say ‘We have 20 minutes’. One of his group said ‘We can walk’. ‘No!’ he said ‘We will not walk, we will run!’ We all ran, I was still ahead. But not for long. The fatigue was growing, I was tired and wanted to walk. I was still walking when they came up behind me. He shouted at me, reminding me of our agreement. This time, I could not respond by running. I said that I would catch up later. I watched them run ahead, for the first time.
Then there were less than 2kms to go. I suddenly thought, ‘I’ll make it. I can. I will catch up’. I pushed and ran. Then I saw the group up ahead. I saw them from behind, and recognised the thin blue sweatband around the bottom of the knee of the man with the loud voice! I realised for the first time it was probably the same man that ran finished with me in the previous marathon! As I ran past, I shouted ‘20713’. I ran on, now faster and motivated to reach the finish sub-5. I knew I was almost there. I knew I could. With the wind in my sails, I ran. I was now on the field, just running to the finish line. In a turn we ended up facing the runners coming from behind, and I saw him and his group. I was happy for them. They saw me too and I lifted my hands in prayer position to show my thanks. In the tent I got the medal and was very grateful for the bottle of Bavaria. The man handing them out said ‘Twist to open’. I asked him to open mine, as my hands were sweaty and I was too tired.
Outside the tent after the finish, I saw the man with the loud voice and said ‘I would still be walking if it wasn’t for you. Thank you for pushing me’. Then we both asked something like ‘Wasn’t it you at the other race?’
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The human side of a race – where strangers are friends.