Supporting a Runner (and you thought running was hard)

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My sister waves to us as she nears mile 12.

It’s hard to imagine what it takes to do something unless you put yourself in the shoes of the person doing the thing that you’re trying to imagine. For me, I no longer have to imagine what it would be like to raise a child, jump out of an airplane, teach fifth graders, run a 5K as a fireplace, or dance in the Nutcracker. And thanks to my sister, I no longer have to wonder what it’d be like to support a marathoner.

This past weekend, my sister (aka The Runner) came to town for the Triple Lakes Trail Marathon. Another sister (aka The Elder) and I along with our children, planned to provide support for The Runner throughout the race. The Runner stayed with The Elder, and caught a ride with her and my niece to the start line. I, on the other hand, had to wait until my 5YO son decided to wake from his slumber. I woke at 6AM. Got showered, dressed, ate breakfast, fed the dogs, and packed the car. By seven I was ready to roll. My son, however, was not. Ten minutes later, the little fella walked into the kitchen wearing an imaginary top hat and mustache and said rather gentlemanly, “I thought I would join you.”

I looked at the clock and calculated that if we were to leave immediately we could make it to the start line and see The Runner off. “Do you still want to go to the race?” I asked. “Yes.” He replied. “Are you ready to go to the race now?” I asked. “No,” he said. “I’d like to watch the weather and eat breakfast first.” Apparently my 5YO is an elderly man who only needed to add “whilst reading the obituary section” to make the transformation complete.

Since my son had zero sense of urgency, I texted The Elder to let her know we’d be late. With a start line farewell off the table, my hope was to catch up with The Elder and my niece when The Runner hit the aid station at mile 5. Not wanting to poke the hornet’s nest I sat with my son as he consumed fifteen minutes of local news coverage and a bowl of Captain Crunch. Following his last slurp of milk he set his bowl on the table, turned to me, and said,”OK. I’m ready.” I sprung into action and changed his clothes like a NASCAR pit crew changes tires. Pajama tops and bottoms went flying. Dirty undies and socks netted me 6 points as I banked them off the washer lid. Things were moving along quickly. I was confident that we were headed out the door in the next 20 seconds. Nothing could stop me!

“I have to poop,” my son said as he proceeded to undo the work I had just done. And so I waited…and waited…and waited. I could hear him singing a Christmas song in its entirety before he finally shouted, “Nope. I don’t have to poop.” A moment or twelve later, without a care in the world, he moseyed out of the bathroom and around the living room before circling back to the kitchen. “Are you ready daddy?” he asked me almost impatiently as he walked toward the garage. “Hurry, daddy. We’re going to be late!” I snatched my keys from the counter, got my son situated in his seat, and waited for the garage door to count us down. “You are cleared for takeoff,” my son said. And off we went.

We arrived at the park with 20 minutes to spare. Given the earlier false poo-sitive, I asked my son if he wanted to use the Port-a-John. Intrigued by the mystery hiding behind the green door, he said yes. Well, that is, until I opened the door and he looked down the hole where many a runner’s waste had been laid to rest. “No way! I am NOT going in there,” he said. “Is there another bathroom?” I let him know that the nature center had the only hygienic bathroom for miles, and that it wasn’t open until 9AM. After a refresher on the concept of time he agreed to wait and the two of us took off down the greenway to meet up with The Elder and my niece.

We waited for a short bit, clapping and cheering for other runners, before The Runner eventually popped out of the woods. We waved and cheered for her, checked that she was doing OK, and then clapped some more as she headed down the greenway. “Daddy, can we run and meet her at the next place?” Instead of explaining to him all that was wrong with his idea we started running. We made it a quarter of a mile before he stopped and said, “Nah. Let’s just drive.”

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My son cheers for runners at the first aid station.

We walked back to meet up with The Elder and my niece, and the lot of us made our way to the nature center to answer nature’s call and see nature stuff. We saw snakes and birds and dead things and pelts and a bear’s butt. Upon the conclusion of the safari we loaded up the car and headed to the next checkpoint: mile 11.75. On our way, my son turned into the ultimate backseat driver. “We’re going the wrong way! We need to turn around! Change the music! Turn around! No music! Are you listening? Everyone stop talking! We need to go back to the race!” It was as pleasant as Red Elevens on a cold, rainy run.

Miraculously, and despite “going the wrong way”, we arrived early and with plenty of time to feed the very hangry caterpillar in my backseat. With his belly temporarily satisfied, my son joined my niece outside where they clapped, cheered, and waved to runners. When the runner well went dry my son and niece meandered down the trails in search of The Runner. Five minutes later the two tore up the trail yelling, “She’s coming! She’s coming!” We clapped, cheered, took photos, and The Runner kept going. Next up, mile 15.

Back in the car we drove to the next stop at Lake Brandt. On the way I promised a visit to the dam. Upon arrival we made a B-line for said dam and were given a history lesson on the Three Gorges dam by my son. Throughout the dam tour I learned that I am not as smart as Google, that fish don’t eat electricity, and that posting “No Trespassing” signs is mean. Once the dam was out of sight, it was also out of mind, and the four of us were able to make our way down the trail to find The Runner. My son and niece walked ahead of The Elder and I. After 15 minutes of hiking and cheering for other runners, shouts of “She’s coming! She’s coming!” were heard once again. The Runner looked good and was happy she wasn’t lost. My son, on the other hand, was showing signs of wear.

“Up-ah! Up-ah!” he said as he bounced up and down signaling his desire to ride atop my shoulders. “Up-ah!” he repeated. I obliged, propped him on my shoulders, and we (not him) walked the mile back to the car where I pumped him with snacks and water before heading out to our next stop: mile marker 20.5.

A few years earlier while running the 40 miler, The Elder and her family had met me at mile 19. For this year’s race we toyed with the idea of doing the same for The Runner, but thought it’d be easier if we stuck to the “Support Crew” recommendations provided by the race director. When we arrived at mile 20.5 there was no parking. This wasn’t a shock. The race director’s notes said there wasn’t any parking. I just didn’t believe him. No, the only parking was a half mile away at the park near the start/finish line.

Since my son had no interest in walking (and I had even less interest in piggy-backing him to and fro) I suggested dropping off The Elder and my niece and just driving around for 15 minutes until they got back. After an hour, and all the glorious happiness that filled the interior of my car in that time, The Elder texted me to let me know that The Runner had been spotted. Without haste, I drove back down to pick them up. Last stop, the finish line.

Back at the finish line we figured we had about an hour before The Runner would arrive. We played at the playground, whittled mulch, and built boats from sticks and woven grass. Did you read that last part? We built boats from sticks and woven grass! It was only a matter of time before my son and niece reached the end of their Golden Rope of Patience, and even less before The Elder and I were squatting at the loony bin. With seconds to spare before our crew fell apart The Runner appeared. The four of us perked up and bolted to the finish where we cheered, whooped, hollered, and clapped as The Runner completed her first trail marathon. CONGRATULATIONS!

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My son and niece cheer on my sister as she crosses the finish line.

As for the experience of supporting a runner, it’s no easy task. Seriously, it’s exhausting. I owe a great deal of thanks to anyone (my wife included) who has ever come out and cheered me on during a race. I have a better appreciation for what you went through and can only pray that you will do it again because hearing cheers and claps when the going gets rough makes a huge difference.