Name Dropper

Posted September 13, 2011 by jimhigley

I spent a good part of last Sunday morning screaming at a bunch of strangers. And, I loved it. Funny thing, I think they loved it, too.

It was one of the many perks that came with being a volunteer for the 15th Annual Chicago Half Marathon – held in and around Jackson Park with its stunning route up and down Lake Shore Drive.

My job was to man one of the earlier water stations near mile marker three. Easy enough, right?

Well, for those of you who haven’t been to a big race before, let me put this in perspective. This is not the same as bringing an Igloo cooler to the sidelines of your kid’s soccer game. This is more along the lines of being thrown in the middle of an open field in South Dakota and being told that a thundering herd of buffalo is approaching you. Oh, and by the way, we’d like you to take this lipstick and try to apply it to the lips of as many buffalo as possible as they pass by.

Last Sunday morning, our herd of buffalo was in the form of over 20,000 sweaty runners. And, our lipstick was thousands of tiny paper cups filled with water and energy drinks. Our task was to get these cups in the hands of the runners – without spilling – as they zoomed by.

The first couple hundred runners – led by a group some gazelle-like elite runners – didn’t swing by our tables to refuel. They were in this thing to compete. Our offering of water wasn’t high on their to-do list. But when the next wave of runners started coming by, we began making contact. So my  buddies and I lined the edge of the course, cups in hand, holding one out at a time waiting for a runner to grab it. It was kind of the same sensation I had when, as an eight-year-old pulled from the crowd at a bird show at Sea World, I found myself on stage holding a dead fish in my outstretched hand while a pelican flew by to grab it.

I closed my eyes when I was eight. But closing eyes was not a good idea last Sunday because for a brief few seconds, you had to work one-on-one with each runner to get the cup of liquid heaven in their hands. Picture a NASA docking in space – 3, 2, 1… “and we have contact!”

It was pretty fun, truthfully.

Hands down, however, the best part of the day – once we all started getting comfortable with the mechanics – was cheering on the runners. And, because 90% of the runners had their first name printed on the bibs pinned to their shirt fronts along with their race numbers, you could personalize the cheering.

“Awesome job, Jennifer!”

“Antonio, you’re looking great! Keep it up!”

“Mildred! Mildred! Mildred!”

I think we all started the name game a little hesitantly. I mean, that’s the world we live in, right? Don’t cross boundaries. Don’t get too personal. But that morning, that event, screamed for personal connections. There was not a runner or participant in that race that didn’t move me, touch me and, truthfully, make me feel joy to simply be alive.

“Sonia! You are the best!”

I started running races four years ago after I was diagnosed with cancer. I was never a runner before then. And, truthfully, I’m really not one now. What I am, however, is a participant. I give it a go. I try not to be afraid or embarrassed and I draw strength from those around me.

Sunday was inspiration overload. First, those breathtaking gazelles. Then came the people you could relate to. They were coworkers, neighbors, aunts, uncles, the guy who bags your groceries, your bank teller, your bus driver. They were the people you see every day but never acknowledge. But in that moment, they were people who were inspiring. Each of them with their own story. Each of them with their own goals.

And each of them with their own name.