The 26th Mile

It’s no secret this Chicago girl has had a hard time adjusting to life in New England, but I’ve been making a good effort lately to try to be more optimistic about what this town has to offer. As the weather warms up, new opportunities to explore are becoming more abundant, and there’s no better place to appreciate Boston than the Boston Marathon. I spent an undisclosed amount of time studying and analyzing the course map, only to find myself somewhat randomly positioned exactly at the elegantly adorned 25.2 mile mark, with a signature blue and yellow “1 Mile To Go” sign.

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I set foot on Comm Ave well before the winner of the Wheelchair Division sped past, which means I had prime front row real estate. Marathon spectators have varying reasons for setting up camp at their given location. It could be their runner asked for support at a specific mile marker, or the race just so happens to pass by their place of dwelling (or close to it). Some time between the Wheelchair Division and the Elite Women, I found myself reflecting on the importance of where I was positioned along the race course. As someone who has spent significant time scanning crowds of spectators for a familiar face, my cheering experience is rather limited. But I do know a thing or two about what it’s like to run that 26th mile.

At the point when a runner reaches the 25th mile marker, they’ve already experienced more emotions and physical ailments than the average person can imagine. From euphoria (also known as a “runner’s high”) to the straight up ugly cry, muscle cramps to a sudden injury that could never be predicted during careful training, the marathon is a Murphy’s Law convention. As a runner embarks upon their 26th mile, they may experience a sudden trickle of energy, yet are wise enough to know despite what the crowd full of well meaning, mostly non-runners says, they are not “almost there.” There is no “almost there” in a marathon. There’s the race, and there’s the finish line; that’s it, that’s all.

Success in the 26th mile is driven by any number of factors. How bad do you want to see that finish line? Is there a race photographer nearby? Do you know anybody hidden within the crowds that will call you out for walking? Where is the target you picked out back at mile 24 (you can’t let that person beat you!)? Thinking back to my own marathon experiences, all of the above apply. And holding more weight than one would conceive, is the stranger who believes in you, be it a spectator or a fellow runner.  During Chicago 2012, a runner named John caught me running down Michigan Ave just as we hit the 25th mile marker. Being a veteran marathoner gave him no advantage over the rest of us. He admitted he’d been feeding off my energy for about half a mile, and boy was he impressed. John didn’t know I was having an internal debate about when and for how long I’d allow myself to walk, or maybe he did. We ran the entire 26th mile together, mostly silent, with an occasion agonizing sound effect, basking in the cheers from the crowd and moved by the pace of the other’s feet all the way to the finish line.

Boston Marathon runners embarking on their 26th mile

Boston Marathon runners embarking on their 26th mile

The 26th mile is far from easy, even when you’re Meb Keflezighi or Rita Jeptoo. It’s completely unpredictable, entirely agonizing, and quite possibly the most daunting portion of the race. This year, in a new city, playing a new role at a new marathon, I stood among strangers united in the power of the 26th mile. We cheered. We extended our hands in support, and when the offer was taken, we high-fived. And whenever possible we called the runners by name, letting them know no matter where their marathon journey began, at that very moment, they had a whole city behind them. I left Beacon Street with a new appreciation for the people of Boston. In this marathon we call life, it’s important to embrace where we are at any given moment, accept support when it’s offered, and don’t be so focused on the finish line you miss out on the amazing energy around you.

For video clips of Meb Keflezighi, Rita Jeptoo, and Shalane Flanagan at “1 Mile To Go,” check out my Instagram account

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