Last Sunday, I hit the pavement along with nearly 8,000 other runners for the 8th Annual Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The day was unseasonably warm and humid, which set the stage for a slow, sweaty slog to the finish line, but didn’t dampen my enthusiasm a bit. I love race day. Not because I have any chance of winning – far from it! It’s because race day offers a rare combination of exhilaration, affirmation and positive energy that seems hard to find in our increasingly negative world.
On race day, most runners are competing only against themselves, not against each other, so there’s always a sense of camaraderie along the course. Most spectators are there to cheer on a friend or family member, but that doesn’t stop them from urging on every other runner who happens to pass. They’re more than willing to offer complete strangers high fives, showers from their garden hoses and enthusiastic cowbell accompaniment. They’ll relentlessly clap, wave signs and shout “Way to go!” and “Keep it up!” and “You got this!” for as long as it takes to ensure that every runner keeps moving toward the finish line.
This was epitomized in the 2012 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., where I actually saw a woman holding a sign that proclaimed, “Hey total stranger – I’m so proud of you!” Another memorable sign from Sunday’s race said, “My awesome ex-husband and his wife are running today!” – quite possibly the most extreme example of goodwill I’ve ever witnessed.
None of this kindness is lost on the runners, who are an uncommonly appreciative bunch. They say “Thank you” to the volunteers who hand out water and Gatorade. They say “Thank you for your service” to the Marines stationed along the course. They even say “Thank you” (and occasionally “More cowbell!”) to the spectators who cheer them on. In military-sponsored events like the Marine Corps race series and the Army Ten-Miler, you’ll often see wounded warriors running on artificial limbs, and most runners make a special effort to encourage them. “Great job.” “Keep going.” “Finish strong.”
This consideration stands in stark contrast to the rest of life, where kind words can be few and far between. Outside mutually supportive zones like race day, celebrities have Twitter feuds, politicians exchange personal attacks and sitcom kids are disturbingly snarky toward their parents. An entire industry has formed around ridiculing people on reality TV. Even average citizens are subjected to cyberbullying, fat shaming and shade throwing, and the comments that cut the deepest seem to go viral the fastest.
What if every day could be more like race day? Imagine what life would be like if every customer in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles said “Thank you” to the clerk behind the counter. Or if a fellow shopper approached the mom with the crying baby in the grocery store and murmured, “Keep going. You got this.” What if the driver of the car stuck in traffic next to yours rolled down his window and called out, “You’re almost there! Finish strong!”
I know it’s a long shot, but I feel certain that a little encouragement would make it a lot easier to keep going in life, just as it does on the race course. Surely the same positive energy that propelled runners up Hospital Hill on Sunday could help conquer other kinds of obstacles as well. While we may not come across thousands of runners every day, we undoubtedly meet plenty of people who could really use a boost. The key is to recognize the opportunities. So keep your eyes open. Think positive.
And don’t be afraid to use a cowbell if you have to.