Saturday Diary / Thank you, strangers. I couldn't have made it without you

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I started running because I preferred to be alone. When I switched from team sports to cross-country, it was because I liked being self-reliant and independent. I found the monotony of long workouts hypnotic, a means to escape.

Today, this is still what draws me to the sport, the idea that for some amount of time there is nothing but myself, some tunes and the rhythmic smack of my sneakers against the asphalt. My iPhone remains at home, diligently recording the angry complaints of readers and logging the e-mail alerts that awaken it with notice of every kind of disaster: working structure fire, SWAT call-out, motor vehicle accident.

That's what led me to run a marathon this year. The longer I ran, the longer I could be out of touch.

For the most part, I trained alone. Twenty-one and a half miles across dramatic landscapes on the Montour Trail, with only hawks for company. Fifteen miles winding through Schenley Park, pumping bluegrass into my ears. Thirteen miles slipping and sliding down the icy Eliza Furnace Trail. Numerous climbs up Shady Avenue, heavy bass beats from Jay-Z tunes thumping with every footstep.

But on the day of the Pittsburgh Marathon, as the mileage climbed, it was the voices and antics of the mostly strangers who lined the course that distracted me from the searing pain in my legs. When there was nothing left in my tank, it was the sense that I couldn't disappoint these people that powered me forward.

These strangers didn't know me, didn't know that I'd missed four weeks of training with a knee swollen to the size of a grapefruit, didn't know that I'd missed days of training because of work shifts that ran too long. They just said go girl. You can do it.

For that, I say thank you.

A few years ago, when I was one of a team of reporters assigned to cover the marathon, I met a woman clad in a robe and fuzzy slippers who had pulled up a folding chair on the North Side. A slow, unforgiving drizzle fell from the sky, but she was all smiles.

"We're a big city, but it's the small town thing to do," Beverly Smith told me. "You go out and cheer for whoever, Steelers, Pirates, runners. And we want people to like the city."

I didn't fully appreciate what this meant until I pounded the pavement myself during last month's marathon and saw nearly every yard of the 26.2 miles lined with well-wishers, even before dawn and even as the weather turned unbearably muggy.

I know that marathon running doesn't make the best spectator sport. There are no bone-rattling collisions of beefy men (except, perhaps, accidentally). And if you're on the sidewalk watching, it's sort of like getting seats on the sidelines of a Steelers game for, like, a minute, while the elite runners whiz by. By the time I come chugging around the corner, you're spectating the equivalent of a totally defeated Pop Warner team.

To top things off, we amateurs -- in our sweaty, pukey, Spandex-clad glory -- shut down the whole city for this maniacal exercise. And there's not even fireworks to make it all worth it.

But people come out in droves.

On the North Side, I got weepy as a children's choir belted gospel tunes. The Brashear High School cheer squad pumped me up in the West End, where the spectacle of gyrating belly dancers briefly distracted from the pinch of the slackening iliotibial band in my left knee. A few dudes with bizarre facial hair and people with cheeky signage ("This is the worst parade ever") loosened the grimace on my face into a laugh.

I high-fived friends in Shadyside. On Penn Avenue, my friend Megan Barrow, who works a late night copy-editing shift at the Post-Gazette, got up early to watch and even ran about 100 yards with me in flip-flops. Another friend, Allison Hong, ran alongside us to snap photos. She yelled "I love you!" as I disappeared under an overpass into Homewood.

By Homewood, as the asphalt on treeless streets began to boil beneath my sneakers, I wondered if I was going to make it. I feigned peppiness to mitigate the overwhelming sense of nausea, the ache radiating from my knees. I smiled at a group of women who had pulled up chairs in the shade, waved and yelled "Thank you!"

"I am PROUD of you!" one woman yelled back, her voice weighted with sincerity. This total stranger, proud of me. I picked up my pace.

My parents, who had mounted bikes and pedaled furiously around the course to catch me, met me at Fifth and Frankstown avenues and chased me with cameras.

"Papparazzi!" I yelled gleefully.

As I wound through Homewood's streets, I felt eternally grateful to see that residents had set up their own water stations, manned with adorable children who held paper cups high above their heads to reach passing runners. I grinned widely at the Pittsburgh Soul Steppers, who shimmied in their own marathon of sorts. If they can dance in the sun for four hours, I thought, I can do this. I can't even dance for one hour. I can't even dance.

In Highland Park, at mile 18, a woman yelled "This is the Miracle Mile! If you finish this mile you goin' all the way!" I had no reason to believe her, but I did. In my head, that became my new mantra: miracle mile, miracle mile, miracle mile. Police Lt. Reyne Kascuta, in her starched white uniform, yelled "Go 2015!" as I chugged by.

Somewhere nearby, my friend and colleague Annie Siebert passed a woman handing out cupcakes. That sweets-bearing Good Samaritan got her through the last eight miles.

Finally came the four-mile homestretch down Penn Avenue. In the blazing heat. My internal dialogue turned into choppy fragments. Faith, focus, finish, I repeated in my head, a mantra I picked up from Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. I glanced down at my bib, where I had my grandpa's nickname printed, and thought of the fact that he'd survived the Bataan Death March.

As I entered the phalanx on the Boulevard of the Allies, where the sidewalks were as packed as I've ever seen them, the roar of the crowd pushed me into a full sprint. I raised my palms up, urging the crowd to cheer louder.

At the finish line, I felt like I'd just hit a concrete wall. I stopped dead in my tracks and couldn't move. A volunteer, seeing my immobility, grabbed my arm and pulled me to my parents. I collapsed into the arms of my mom, Jacquie, who had flown across the country with my dad, Albert, to be there. They had awakened before dawn for a pre-race pep talk (about 2 a.m. West Coast time) and then rode bikes in excess of 30 miles to catch me at various points along the course. I started to cry.

I cried because I was proud. I cried because I felt like a Major League slugger had taken a bat to my legs. I cried because I worried that I was about to experience some explosion of bodily functions. I cried because I was so intensely moved by my friends, my family and, most of all, by the total strangers who rallied me through those brutal moments of doubt.

I recognized the strange irony. I run to get away from people. But in the end, I'm not sure I could have finished without them.

If you were out on the course, yelling full-throated for hordes of nameless runners, you might wonder if it made a difference.

It did. And for that I say, thank you.

opinion_commentary

Moriah Balingit is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (mbalingit@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2533). First Published June 2, 2012 12:00 AM


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