Ironman was in Boulder last weekend. It was awesome. I’ve been excited ever since the announcement was made last year that it was coming to Boulder. I was so excited that I specifically blocked time in my coworker’s calendar so that she could get online to register the hour it opened up. (And she did.)
On Saturday I got out a roll of butcher paper and started painting signs. “Go Michele, home field advantage!” “Just keep swimming (check), biking (check), running!” “Hey random athlete, I don’t even know you but I am SO PROUD of you!” I taped them up on the fences along the course.
I was awakened at 4:30 by the sounds of cars circling my neighborhood, trying to find a place to park. All morning, I kept thinking, They’re out there right now. While I’m here eating breakfast / reading / cleaning, they’re moving. Swimming. Biking. Starting running soon. At 1:00 I went to the creek path to start cheering the runners on.
I was surprised how many spectators were out. I mean, I know the Ironman is a big deal, but it’s also a long course. Yet there were so many people with signs and cowbells. If I could see their name on their bib, I tried to encourage each athlete by name. “Good job, David. Good job, Kelly. Good job, Christine. Good job, John.” Even after swimming 2.4 miles and biking 112, many still managed to grunt “Thanks” when I cheered. I rang my cowbell until my hand got tired, then switched to the other hand, then back again.
The further along in the race, the slower the athletes were moving. At first everyone was running. Then jogging. Then there were some walkers. Then a lot of walkers. Then people with tears in their eyes. Eagle-eyed medics on bicycles were going up to athletes asking the last time they peed. Cheers changed from high-energy “Woohoo!” to reassuring “You ARE making progress. Just keep moving forward. You WILL make it.” Some stared at us in disbelief, in too much pain and exhaustion to comprehend the sounds coming out of our mouths.
I popped back to my apartment to make more signs. “Run, walk, crawl, whatever it takes! You made it this far. Just don’t give up!” “What do they call the last person to finish an Ironman? AN IRONMAN.” Amidst the cacophony of noise and people and stimuli, many glanced down to read, and smiled. Some even said, “I love that sign.”
I went downtown to see my coworker run across the finish line, but instead of heading home to bed then I went back to the path. Now dark and deserted by most of the fans, the occasional athlete still hobbled along adorned with a headlamp or glow necklace. I smiled at each one that passed. “You can do it. You still have time. You’re going to go to bed tonight as an Ironman.” They smiled at that realization, or nodded while choking back tears.
I knew I was excited to cheer at the Ironman – just like I was excited to cheer at the Olympics or at my students’ choir concerts and tennis matches and theatre performances this year. I’ve always like cheering for people, but I’ve never really known why.
Until I realized that it’s the hope you see on their faces. Encouragement is a way to show love by giving people hope and support. There’s something addictive about the look in their eyes when they realize that someone – anyone – supports them.
I realized how many people are looking for support. Looking for encouragement. Looking for hope. Looking for love. Whether it’s at something formal like a race, or just after a hard day answering calls from angry customers. And most’ll be happy to take it any way that they can get it – even if it’s from a five-second interaction with a girl sitting in the grass with a sign and a bell.
I sat exhausted and alone under a street lamp waiting full minutes between athletes wanting nothing more than to go to bed. But I couldn’t go to bed, not yet. Not when more were still out there. Not when it was easily within my power to give hope to just a few more people and I’d get to see their faces light up.
The privilege of giving a brief moment of encouragement to someone, really, we have so many opportunities to give that but we often don’t take advantage. It’s something that costs us nothing. Just a little bit of time, and a genuine love for others. It could be as simple as a text message saying, “Was thinking about you today. You’re pretty awesome. I’m glad you’re in my life.”
The opportunity to encourage is addicting. Next year I’ll have to call in sick on Monday so that I can keep cheering all the way through midnight.