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JACOBSON: Supporters make marathons special

Published: Tuesday, April 23, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Martin Richard, Krystle Campbell and Lu Lingzi – the three people who died from injuries suffered during the bombings at the Boston Marathon last week – weren’t running when the bombs exploded.

Standing near the finish line, the three were spectators and supporters, there to cheer on friends, family and strangers as thousands triumphantly finished the most prestigious 26.2-mile course in the world.

In October in Chicago, I ran my first marathon.

I hadn’t felt nervous before a sporting event since my last cross country race in high school. Yet as I stood in my corral for the start of Wave 2, those long-lost feelings returned briefly.

Was my training enough? Would I be able to hold my pace?

As I had been taught through hundreds of competitive races as a kid, my focus was on me and my race. Yet within the first minute as I ran through the first section of crowd-lined streets in downtown Chicago, I realized marathons were different, the exact opposite of any race I had ran.

People like Richard, Campbell and Lingzi were what made the 26.2 miles special.

Around Mile 3 I saw my family, the first people I recognized in the crowd numbering more than a million that day. My parents, sister and aunt had flown 2,000 miles from the West Coast. They had seen me race countless times in my home state of California, but, like so many families of marathoners, they weren’t going to miss Chicago.

I high-fived my first group of friends at Mile 7. It never is easy convincing a group of 20-somethings to wake up by 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, but there they were, neon signs in tow, eager and willing to cheer for three-plus hours. The ones who gave me a place to sleep the night before so I could get more rest and the ones who gladly would miss the first session of NFL games scheduled that day to watch a bunch of runners trudge through city streets.

There was a family on the side of the road near Mile 14. Even with 20 aid stations on the course, the dad was handing out water bottles on his own and his daughter carried a tupperware bin full of orange slices. I gladly took the water. Did they know me? No. Will I see them again? Probably not. But they wanted to help any runner they could.

I crossed the finish line and almost collapsed, my legs aching after the longest run I ever had done. A race volunteer came and helped me along, supporting me and slowly walking with me away from the finish area. He asked me questions about my run, quickly retrieved much-needed water and made sure I was in good condition before leaving to help the next finisher, the final good deed done in a four-hour period chock-full of them.

As much as marathons are a final test of individual will and the culmination of hard work for endurance athletes, they are equally a showcase of the unselfishness of so many more.

The thousands of people who make funny signs, hand out food, shout words of encouragement and convince those who are walking at Mile 21 to start running again and finish the last five-plus miles. They are what make marathons memorable.

The three who died last week in Boston were in that group of special people and it’s a tragedy that many who were there to watch and cheer never again will get the chance to run.

In just more than a month, I’ll line up for my second marathon in Rockford. I have a time goal in mind with the intention of qualifying for Boston by 2015. Scribbled on my shoes will be the initials of the three who died. In my mind will be the countless others still recovering from last week’s terrible events.

There is a special community involving runners. They train together for months, logging countless miles in hopes of celebrating the same achievement on the same day, together.

But on race day, that community grows exponentially bigger to include everyone who makes that event possible.

It’s something to be appreciated and something to be remembered. Never forget those who help you along the way. Sometimes their sacrifices are bigger than your own.

• Ross Jacobson is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached via email at rjacobson@shawmedia.com and follow him on Twitter @RossJacobson.

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