I discovered something new this morning. There is a 5:30 AM on Sundays. I always assumed there was, I’d just never seen it my own self. Nor had my eleventeen year old daughter, Julia. But today that all changed.
It was somewhere near the end of our dark fifty minute drive into Austin that my consciousness came online and I realized where I was, who I was, and what I was about to do. That’s when we hit the traffic. A bright red snake of lights, slithering through the dark for miles, straight into downtown Austin.
Over 17,000 people ran The Capitol 10 K this morning. At least two of them had never done it before, or anything remotely like it, and had no idea what to expect. That’s not to say we weren’t ready, somewhat. Julia and I have been running together since the first of this year with an eye on April 7th. But running on deserted Wimberley dirt roads is one thing; Austin cement, crowded with crazies, is quite another.
“Holy shit, look at all these people,” I said. To myself, silently. I wondered what I’d gotten my little girl into. I envisioned her being trampled by the guy in the banana suit, Scooby Doo and Shaggy, and the group of six old women all wearing fluffy bunny ears. All of whom I could see out my car window as I paid the seven dollars to park. As we inched through the lot, people gushed around and past our car on their way to the starting line. We were a big rock stuck in the middle of some mad stream.
We parked, fumbled nervously with our number bibs for a few minutes, gave each other one last look that said, “Why are we doing this again?,” and jumped into the flow. We didn’t know it right then, but we wouldn’t actually be out of that flow until the moment we got back into the car, three hours later.
We soon folded into the enormous crowd stretching down South Congress to wait for the start. Bored and a little nervous, I started looking around to see if I could tell who the other newbies were. I thought I had it figured out; about a third of us were actually wearing our snazzy new Cap 10 K tee-shirts. Yes, these must be the freshmen. But the mystery was solved with certainty when the announcer yelled “Go!” and a few of us actually jogged a step or two, then stopped, realizing that nobody was going anywhere. It would take a further sixteen minutes, to be exact, inching along in the tittering crowd, to actually reach the start line where we could begin running. To her credit, and my relief, Julia did not die of embarrassment at our false start. And next year we’ll know: play it cool.
Everything felt better once we got our feet moving. Over the bridge and only a few blocks up Congress we spotted our fabulous friends Dave And Meg on the sidewalk. ”It’s the LOVES!!!,” Meg sang happily, and we blew movie-star kisses back and forth. I snuck a glance a Julia, she was smiling.
Speaking of Julia, she’s recently taken an interest in not talking to me when we’re in public, at all. And she’s excelling at it. So to keep myself entertained as we ran, I started eavesdropping around.
“Ever since I had the uterine ablation I don’t even get periods any more,” bragged the diminutive redhead in front of us.
“You’re so lucky Maryanne!” The others all agreed.
A mother to our right lied to her about-seven-year-old boy, “Honey, come on, running is way easier than walking, I promise!”
And behind us, a guy with sleeve tattoos, everywhere-piercings, and very creative facial hair told his friend, “So once I get the coop built I can finally move them out of the house.”
I would need another passtime.
I started looking to the sidelines, past our co-runners, to the spectators who lined the route. I wondered what compelled them to be there, to get up (almost) as early as we did just to come watch.
Of course there were the water people, teams of HEB or Whataburger or whatever employees, probably — hopefully — being paid to be there giving us cups of water and cheering us on. There were families with signs: “You can do it Mimi!” ”Run, Thomas, Run!” They stood silently, peering intently at each of us as we passed, waiting for the one face they would recognize. There were dozens of bands playing all sorts of music. The odd homeless guy yelling about Jesus. There were even a few snarks, hipsters who’d set up in their front yards with their ironic beards and skinny jeans to scoff clevernesses to their magenta-haired girlfriends. I’m sure we provided them with lots of good material.
But then, just when I’d begun placing these people and their motives for being there neatly into categories, I saw a woman who didn’t fit into any of them. Mid to late fifties, dressed in boots and jeans and sunglasses, standing completely alone. The thing is, she was cheering. Cheering everybody who passed by. Everyone. No sign, no searching-for-someone-in-particular look on her face, no Whataburger shirt. Just cheering us on. ”You can do it!! Way to go!! Don’t stop!! You can do it!” Top of her lungs. I figured there must be more to the story, surely she didn’t just come out to cheer complete strangers?
Then there was another one, about a mile further on. A woman, mid thirties, alone, cheering loudly. I tried to conjure her story too, but couldn’t quite.
Another half mile, yet another unaffiliated cheerleader. I reached for my phone, determined to take a picture of the next one I saw. Which I did, a half mile later:
And then a mile or two later, another. With a cowbell:
From what I can tell, these people just showed up to cheer. Just like us, they drove downtown, they sat in traffic, they paid to park, they walked to a spot on the course. And then they just stood there cheering.
Which leaves you with two choices, really. Either they are completely insane, or they are possibly the best people on earth.
But they don’t look insane to me (not that that’s a reliable test, I realize). Which leaves the second option. Pondering Cowbell Lady as we neared the finish line, it suddenly occurred to me. Maybe these women — and they were all women — are just broken, broken in the best possible way. Which is to say, perhaps in the distant or near past, life broke them into pieces and then, with the help of a dear friend or two, they were able to put themselves back together. I imagined divorces, addictions, losses, abuses, deaths. And then I imagined the friend who came alongside, sitting quietly or cheering loudly, which ever was needed in the moment. Bringing food, texting love, meeting for coffee, sitting and listening, challenging and inspiring to action, hugging. All the things amazing friends do.
You are going to get through this. You are stronger than you think. I know it sucks. But you can do it.
And then I imagined Cowbell Lady and the others years on, today, healed and somewhat whole again. One of them turned down an invitation to breakfast, another skipped church, yet another got up way earlier on a Sunday than she liked to. Wanting only, somehow, to pass along the tremendous gift to someone else. Or 17,000 someone elses.
Standing in their spots, clanging cowbells and clapping hands and screaming at the top of their lungs and jumping up and down. A prayer, an ecstatic celebration, a brief and blissful re-entry into the pure and perfect world of Encouragement. Once ordinary mortals like you and me, now transformed into angels by the impossible grace they received through the words of their friends.
You can do this. I know it’s hard. But you’re almost there. Do not give up!
I want to be one of them when I grow up. If I grow up. I’ve been broken, and I’ve been given tremendous encouragement by angels in my own world, and I’ve been healed a thousand times as a result. So I can’t think of a more worthy ambition for my life than to become the sort of angel who gives up a morning to cheer on total strangers.
But for whatever reason, I haven’t yet sprouted those wings. Maybe someday.
“Daddy?” Julia broke her silence just seconds before we reached the finish. “After we cross the line, can we go back around and cheer people on?”
Maybe it’s a girl thing.