I'm a total baby.
Sometimes I get choked up during my own races. Suddenly, an overwhelming feeling of "Wow, this is awesome!" kicks in, and I have to hold it back (wastes too much energy). Most of the time, I cry watching other people compete - amateur competitors. Rarely do I get choked up over professional athletes. Professional athletes are amazing, and worthy of being lauded for their achievements. But, I typically don't know who wins a race. I can hardly pay attention to the first person over the finish line, when the real warriors are often an hour or more behind them.
October 2009 - My first big-city (San Jose) half marathon. I'd finished my race, and was standing at the finish line to watch the other participants - especially waiting for the arrival of my friend, Paul. Paul was involved in a nasty motorcycle accident 15 months prior to the race in which he broke his femur. He was probably lucky as hell to be alive. As a physical education teacher, he wanted to do a race to help overcome the injury both mentally and physically. So, he signed for for the San Jose Rock and Roll Marathon. He didn't have a goal time.
While waiting for Paul, I probably watched a thousand other people enter the finishing shoot, and run to the finish line. The sight of that big finish line banner makes people do the most incredible things (even if they were walking just moments before): they sprint, they smile, they find their loved ones and cherish the moment of the big finish. Some of them wear t-shirts in support of an organization, and some have personal messages on their clothing from a family or friend who has passed on. Some cry. Some turn on the engine at the last moment, and try to pass as many people as they can. This finish line is not just the end of a race, sometimes it is the end of another journey, or the realization of how wonderful it is to be alive.
Finally, Paul walked around the corner, and as soon as he saw the finish line, his face lit up with a smile and he picked up the pace, hobbling somewhat to the finish. I totally choked up. Shit, what a great moment for him. His finishing time was 2 hours, 38 minutes, but his race was so much more of a win than mine. Here is a man who could have possibly lost his life, battling 13 miles of a road race on a rehabilitated leg.
This summer, I volunteered for the California International Triathlon and was assigned to the absolute worst part of the course: the run turnaround at the top of a dusty hill. Man, people were really suffering on that hill in the heat, and they had to do it twice! At first it was exciting to see the competitive age-groupers conquer the hill, but as the crowd came down to the one or two who would walk most of the last two miles - my heart was full and so were my eyes - of tears. I wasn't at all sad for these people. I was so freakin' inspired.
As all good volunteers should do (take note), I decided I would stay until the bitter end and make sure the last runner returned safely to the finish line. Her name was Katherine, and she was the mostly lovely woman. Her calf read her age, which I believe was 66. As she came up the hill for the second time, she had to walk. So, I walked a bit with her. She started talking to me like a friend. She wasn't happy with her swim time, but didn't want that to stop her, and she knew she was either last, or the person behind her had decided not to finish. She wanted to see her husband at the finish line.
At one point, Katherine asked me if they had taken the finish line down. "It doesn't really matter," I said, "you are awesome!" I was so thrilled that the finish line was still up when she reached the final stretch. She raised her hands above her head, found her husband, and they hugged.
Then, the waterworks came!
Ok, I'll admit, watching Meb Keflezighi in the last mile of the Boston Marathon this year was pretty thrilling. But, typically my tears are reserved for the regular people, the common man, the weekend warrior who has overcome obstacles to be at the finish line. They didn't have the best performance, or the best time, but they endured. Everyone is on their own journey. Those who reign supreme, and those who "just finish" are fighting different battles, and have overcome something to be where they are. If you asked me who my favorite athlete is, I would probably say someone like Paul, or Katherine.
In about a week, I will be live and in person at the Ironman Tahoe finish line. I will need to pack some Kleenex.