Miles for a Smile
By Michelle Abbott
Racer #1032

Erica and I were doing a training run on Soap Creek Road in our town of Corvallis, Oregon, about four weeks before the marathon. It was a long out-and-back run--the kind that would have been excruciating without the company of a training partner, and was growing pretty unpleasant even with one. Despite the peaceful, bucolic setting, Soap Creek Road was desolate; with miles behind us and miles to go, isolation and boredom were closing in on us. I spotted the distant orange specks of a construction crew working on the road up ahead, and for about two miles I eagerly anticipated a friendly exchange, a smile, perhaps a joke about our unlikely appearance on this remote and lonely road.

That's when I decided I would ask my sister Jessie to come support me as I ran my first marathon at the Avenue of the Giants. If a friendly face on the roadside during an insignificant training run so lifted my spirits, how much more would it mean to have a familiar face on the sidelines of the race? I had known all along that she'd come willingly if I needed her, but I had trouble justifying this "need" against her busy life and obligations in the Bay Area. After all, Erica and I would be running together, and Erica's fiancé Pearce would be there, as he was for all our races. Still, somehow I felt inclined to bolster the support crew, to appoint my own delegate.

Jessie came without hesitation and showed up at our soggy campsite with enthusiasm above and beyond the call of duty.

"What can I do for you?" she asked on race day, "Do you want me to hold food or a water bottle?"

"No, I've got all that covered," I replied, "I just need to see you cheering."

And cheer she did. Pearce and Jessie were the best support crew a runner could ask for. Erica and I ran strong through the first out-and-back section of the race, steadily gaining time on the pace goals we'd written in permanent marker on our arms. I couldn't wait to return to the crowds at the half-marathon point, where Pearce and Jessie would witness our strength and somehow affirm the moment. They were wildly excited when we came into view, snapping pictures, yelling our names, and offering us energy bars and gels.

The crowd's support was almost overwhelming as we made the right-hand turn toward the second half of the race. We could hear Pearce and Jessie's voices over all the others-- we turned and waved to them once more as we crossed the overpass, and they cheered even louder. Then we faced the long road to the mile 20 turnaround on our own.

Our pace slowed by mile 16, and the turnaround seemed a long way away. In my mind, I had broken the race up in segments. Four more miles, I thought, then we turn around and head back to the finish line, to the crowd, to Pearce and Jessie's beaming faces. These images drew me on during that long section of the long race.

At home I have a picture that I've looked at so many times I can call up every detail from memory. In the picture, I am wearing a red bathing suit and a stiff grin-my lips are frozen after having swum 1.2 miles in the chilly San Francisco Bay as part for the 1995 Alcatraz Island swim. Flanking my weary frame are two of my sisters, with round rosy cheeks and big broad smiles; they are almost laughing--their expressions reveal some hybrid of pride and amusement over my crazy endeavor. I find their expressions priceless.

I wouldn't say that I train and race to make others proud of me-there is a much stronger intrinsic motivation that drives me even in the absence of audience. But it is an ingredient in the mysterious mix. After all, would we runners feel like such heroes if there were no one on the sidelines making us feel heroic? Would it be amazing to have run a marathon if it weren't for those who hadn't? And how diminished would be the victory if there was nobody driving to the finish line to wait for those of us who run there?

The last .2 miles of the marathon were glorious. I could see the finish line and the large digital clock bearing good news. The noise of the crowd swelled to a feverish pitch; my eyes stung as tears unexpectedly welled up. I spotted Jessie immediately, a familiar expression on her face as she enthusiastically cheered us on.

Pearce snapped a picture as we entered the finish chute, then dashed madly behind the crowd to catch us crossing the finish line. He reminded me of a paparazzi photographer, desperate to catch the million-dollar celebrity photo. Here, we were the celebrities, and the climatic scene was rolling before my eyes.

My stiff pace quickened to match Erica's, and we crossed the finish line holding hands. Pearce and Jessie greeted us exuberantly, swelling with pride, concern, excitement. "What can I get you? What do you need?" Jessie darted to the food tent, then down to the car to get my sandals. They hovered over us, alternately congratulating us and listening to our breathless recountings, never waning in their enthusiasm and attention.

I'm not sure I'll ever really know what makes me sign up to pound through long miles on a roadside toward a distant finish line, but whatever the reason, the rewards are vividly clear. The support of the crowd at Avenue of the Giants, and the expression on two faces in particular, will be etched in my memory long after my sore knees recover. So to all the super support crews-and especially to Pearce and Jessie-thanks…you not only share our victory, you magnify it.

Michelle Abbott and Erica Hoffa are graduate students at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. They train together and compete in road and trail runs and triathlons.