Watching People Watching


One of the primary lessons I try to help my students understand is the writing has its’ origins in observing. Watching nature all around us. Reflecting on cause and effect. Wondering about the stories of the characters who pass before us; their past, their present and their future.

There is an infinite wealth of stores and lessons when we spend time people watching. Of course, as a runner who participates in several races throughout the year, I find myself in a unique situation.

I’m watching people, who are watching me.

I’m keyed in on the runners and their stories, but also the spectators, volunteers and organizers who line the course.
Here are a few of my favorite moments from this morning’s race:

The crowd milling about before the starter’s pistol erupts. It is a brisk 25 degrees, but there is a long-haired middle aged man in the front row with nothing besides his shoes but patriotic shorts, and a bare chest. I’m not sure if he is an elite first-row runner, but he seems to love the attention.

The sun beams down on the crowd as runners begin their watches while crossing over the starting line. Game on!

The synchronous sound of thousands of feet, all moving together in close proximity, carrying goals, dreams, fears, water bottles and gel packs galore. Within a few moments, there will be an ever-widening chasm between the feet at the front, and those at the rear. But the goals and the camaraderie remain the same.

There are a couple blind runners, who have volunteer running guides, tethered to them. I wrestle my camera from my pocket to take a picture of them, because this is essence of running. Doing your best. Running your race. Overcoming your obstacles. Enjoying the journey.

Rounding the bend at mile 3, there are a couple little girls with their hands out offering high fives. I can use all the encouragement, so I meander through the runners to slap fives and thank them each. We exchange smiles and I’m on my way, with a little more pep in my step.

As I approach mile 4, I’m parched. The last quarter mile has been uphill, and I notice a crowd on the side of the road. It is noisy. I wonder if this is a water stop. Cresting the hill, I realize this boisterous gathering was there solely to cheer us up the hill. I’m no longer thinking about my thirst, but rather how awesome these people are, who brave brisk wind hills to encourage me on. I thank as many as my sputtering breath allows, and am grateful to run on non-elevated terrain for the next half mile.

Each water stop brings chants and cheers from volunteers of all ages. There are usually high school cross country runners, as well as Gen-X’ers who are probably volunteering today after running their own race last week. These brief respites not only quench your thirst, but they also spur you onward for the next stretch with all the words of encouragement coming from smiling faces.

People of all ages and abilities continue to trade places with me, at times passing me by, and at other times I cruise past them. Eventually I am passed by a bearded man in a kilt at mile 8. He wears it with confidence and swagger, though perhaps not much comfort. At least he is cool down beneath.

Around mile 10 there is a little girl dressed as a cat. She is jumping and dancing and screaming cheers for each runner that passes by. She has way more energy than I do, and I contemplate offering to trade places, but I’m not sure I can pull off the cat outfit with the same verve that she has.

Over the final few miles I realize that the runners that surround me have lumbering strides. Much to my chagrin, I probably look similar. But I’m out here, and I resist the temptation to worry about what my finishing time will be, instead choosing to focus on enjoying the time I am having out on the road. Thinking about loved ones. Giving thanks for the now, as well as the future. Because running is a great outlet for reflection. When I run, I’m writing in my head. I’m thinking about my family, my students, and my forever.

This is my running zone. A zone of good karma. My running juju.

Finally the finish line comes into view and my legs find a little extra juice. I raise my arms as I enter the chute, and notice all the sweaty, exhausted, jubilant, victorious faces that have crossed before me. They are watching me, as I have been watching them. Taking note of their stories. Tales of perseverance, determination, inspiration and self-discovery, that intertwine with my own.



8 thoughts on “Watching People Watching

  1. To observe all that and still run the race you did – amazing. Your piece on the essence of running: “this is essence of running. Doing your best. Running your race. Overcoming your obstacles. Enjoying the journey. – that could apply to so many areas of life. Brilliant!

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  2. You are way more observant than me on race day! My husband and I raced a tough 5K Saturday and were rehashing the details, but I cannot remember much about those around me! Maybe I should take note of your diligent observations skills! Love the part about the young girl at mile 10. Just at the point you needed a boost! 5K to go!!

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  3. I am at my most emotional participating in and watching people race or compete. I watch the spectators, and tear up at the emotions, the support, the love that pours out of them. I watch the competitors, and tear up at the emotions, the struggle, the strength that pours out of them. Thank you for bringing that feeling back to me today, and congratulations!

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  4. This was a beautiful slice. I love the idea of watching people watching people (or you!). I have participated in several races, though I am not a runner, and I could fully relate to your words about the spectators and how much power they truly have over us. I never would have gotten as far as I have in any race without them. Their words, their smiles, their presence truly pushes you along when we feel you cannot go on.

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