Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion.
Three weekends ago, my husband and I were back in North Carolina as volunteers for the Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run. The phrase “It takes a village” comes to mind when I think of this race, and though I’m not sure, I suspect there are at least as many, if not more, volunteers as runners who come out for this race. One of my “jobs” for the race was to take photographs of the runners, something I enjoy very much—much more than I would actually running 100 miles.
It was a hard day to sit, though, or even stand in one place to take pictures. It was bitterly cold, even after the sun came out. We knew it would be cold and brought winter gear that had gone unused here in California; so I triple-layered my clothes that morning and slid into a sleeping bag before sitting down. The cold seeped in, despite my efforts to fight it. I suppose I could blame California for already wiping out my cold tolerance, but I suspect I would have been cold anyway. I fretted for the runners’ struggle during the run, sweating and warm from running but then getting chilled from the unwelcome wind.
I cheered as they rounded the corner toward me, mostly to lift their spirits but also to draw out smiles when I could. Many of them smiled and cheered right back, grateful for someone sitting out there to capture their big day. A few were concerned about my warmth and safety, but I assured them I would be okay.
One said to me as he passed by a second or third time (it’s a 12.5 mile loop course the runners run eight times), “Oh, good. They’ve gotten you a blanket.” I guess he was just noticing the sleeping bag. I wondered who “they” were and whether “they” would bring me something hot to drink. He seemed genuinely relieved to see that I might not freeze to death with the camera in my hand.
Not everyone smiled, some too caught up in the act of running or the desire to compete well, but I began to pick out favorites whose own enthusiasm and energy kept me going throughout the day.
When this trio rounded the corner, the man in orange gloves called out to me and said, “On the count of three, we’re all going to jump. Are you ready?” He did a slow count to make sure I was ready, and I snapped this shot. Then he ran around behind me and had me check to make sure I had captured the moment. I laughed when the woman told them, “I didn’t jump.” They were less energetic the next time through but still had their senses of humor intact.
A dear friend of mine came and rescued me at lunchtime. We headed off to Panera for soup and hot tea. That’s when it hit me, the feeling I get anytime I leave an ultra and head back into the “real” world temporarily. I begin to wonder at the number of people out doing their typical Saturday afternoon thing while something amazing is happening not far from them. You’re missing the amazing thing! I want to tell them all. There are runners out in the woods accomplishing this awe-inspiring run, and you’re missing it! Why are any of you here at Panera when this unreal thing is happening in the woods just minutes away?
I don’t even really know how to explain this feeling I get, but it happens every single time my husband runs an ultra that I go watch or every ultra where we volunteer. The fact that Panera or the shopping centers are even open, much less full, messes with my equilibrium somehow.
When I got back and resumed taking pictures, the realness of the runners’ efforts settled back in. I know Panera and the park and the lives in both places are equally real, but what was happening on the trail that day felt simultaneously surreal, unreal and realer than any other thing going on that day.
It’s as though my mind whirs at a different speed during an ultra, my hyper-focused self shuts out the rest of the world to bask in the race and to cheer on the runners.
The emotions can get pretty real and raw out here at the race, too. One woman said, “I don’t think I’ll be able to smile the next time around.” I told her she wouldn’t have to for me, because I was getting ready to leave.
These two runners stopped to embrace several times before the aid station. Only they know what running together had meant to the two of them and what the thought of running separately after this point might mean.
For some, there would be tears and disappointments, injuries too painful to ignore, motivations blown away in the bitter wind.
But for plenty of runners, there would still be moments of levity, laughter and joy.
In the last couple of hours before sunset, I began seeing runners come through with their pacers (something they can do after 6 p.m. or after they hit the 50-mile mark, whichever comes first). A pacer can make all the difference between a runner finishing or dropping out because the pacer brings fresh legs, a clear mind, energy, and conversation to accompany and encourage the runner.
The photo below speaks to the invaluable presence of a pacer (and also reminded me of Ecclesiastes 4:9): Two are better than one. And sometimes, a third person with a camera helps, too.