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May 04, 2010

A Place Where Everyone Knows Your Name

I recently had the privilege and pleasure of running my second Boston Marathon. (Not that I'm bragging. . . koff! koff!). The crowds in Boston are the best thing about this storied marathon, in my opinion; on Patriot's Day everyone has the day off, and whole families make it an annual tradition to line the course and cheer on the runners, while also enjoying a well-lubricated family barbecue and watching the Red Sox game on TV. Grandparents, young kids, teenagers, and of course, the Wellesley College girls (renowned for their enthusiasm!)—they all line the course, yelling out encouragement and hoping for a high five or a hand-slap (or for a kiss, in the case of the aforementioned Wellesley spectators) from a passing runner.

I noticed while running the marathon last year that the crowd loved calling out what was written on runners' shirts, whether a name, a place or a slogan, so I decided this year that I would enable them to give me more personalized encouragement. The night before the race (April 19, 2010), after having indulged myself in my traditional agonizing over what to wear ("Does this black sleeveless singlet make me look fat?"), I took a roll of yellow masking tape and began carefully spelling out my name on the front of the chosen shirt. I decided that "Darrell" would be almost illegible from the sidelines (and would take more tape than I had), so I settled on "DARE" in capital letters: a sometime nickname which could also serve as a word of encouragment to my fellow-runners. So the morning dawned, two F-15 jets flew over the starting line, the gun released us, and I plunged into the 26.2-mile race as DARE. . .

The first half of the race was amazing, even beyond what I had anticipated! Groups of half-drunk college boys chanted, "DARE! DARE! DARE!". . . little children called out my name. . . I felt like a celebrity, like a conquering hero, with lots of shouts from both sides of the road of "Go, Dare!" and "I DARE you to finish this race!" Even once, a big black woman who was serving as a volunteer and handing out cups of Gatorade at around the 10-mile mark, yelled out, "I DARE you to love me!", which did wonders for my flagging legs as well as for my ego. And I won't even mention the girls of the Tunnel of Screams in front of Wellesley College! (As the Nike banner warned us before reaching the college, which is the half-way mark, "Brace Your Ears!”

But my fame and glory was not to last: as my sweat began to pour, the taped letters on my shirt began to lose their stickiness. After hearing "GO DARF!" a few times from the spectators, I realized that my "E" had lost part of itself. And eventually, as all the letters began to sag, I had to scoop them off my shirt and continue the race, nameless. And what a sad difference it made: all at once, I was anonymous. No one called out my name. I felt abandoned by my public, marginalized, almost invisible amidst the throng of runners. All around me people were being noticed, encouraged, even cajoled by name not to quit as we struggled up "Heartbreak Hill": but I was forgotten. The last few miles were difficult; I had to walk at a few points, and the pain increased. I really could have used that personalized encouragement, but I had instead to rely on the voices inside my own head.

What I have come to better understand since running the Boston Marathon is this: I really need encouragement! Encouragement enables me to keep going. And that encouragement needs to be personal, given by those who care about me—who know me, or at the very least, who know my name. I imagine we all need someplace to go where everyone knows our name, as the theme song for "Cheers!" puts it (a show about the community life of a Boston pub). When the going gets tough, when we feel like giving up, a voice of cheer can make a huge difference. It can literally en-courage us, give us courage within. It can keep us from quitting.

Yes, the Boston crowd was amazing that day. Commentators estimated that upwards of 500,000 people lined the marathon course, providing us with hope, humour and even physical support all along the 26.2 miles of our journey. I clearly remember in the haze of the last few miles one woman who reached out her arms to all of us and shouted, with extreme earnestness, "You're all my heroes!”

She may not have known it, but she was ours as well.