They also serve who only stand and hydrate
An Irishman’s Diary about channeling one’s inner American when watching the Dublin City Marathon
‘It’s hard to clap when you’re handing out bottles. But I still kept cheering, because as a runner myself, I know this matters.’ Photograph: Eric Luke
Sean Hehir, winner of the Airtricity Dublin Marathon. Photograph: Eric Luke
I have a few sore muscles this morning, after Monday’s marathon. Still, it would be worse if I’d actually run the race. As it happens, I was only handing out water. It’s just that I’ve never done this before and, as I now realise, probably didn’t prepare well enough.
Hence my triceps and oblique abdominals were a bit stiff when I woke up Tuesday, and my hamstrings were tight too: probably from all the times I had to bend down and pick up bottles after fumbled handovers.
How my dispensing job came about is that I was watching the race in Chapelizod, partly to cheer on my fellow Donore Harriers (all 35 of them) as they passed the clubhouse. That’s also a good vantage point generally, however, being where the runners leave the Phoenix Park and re-enter the city proper.
And since the Donore water station was already well staffed when I arrived, my plan was just to be part of the welcoming committee: clapping all the 14,500 athletes past. Then the first of the big race-waves descended on Chapelizod and, suddenly, it was as if the village church had gone up in flames. Water couldn’t be dispensed quickly enough for a period, so all hands were called up to the fire brigade, including me.
But as I discovered, emergency humanitarian work becomes addictive. After that, even between waves, I kept handing out bottles, whether I was needed or not. It was probably the adrenaline. I think, looking back, I was experiencing a water-dispensing high.
Of course it’s hard to clap when you’re handing out bottles. But I still kept cheering, because as a runner myself, I know this matters. Whenever you feel like giving up in a race, which is a lot of the time, it’s extraordinary how helpful even the slightest encouragement can be.
This is where Americans come into their own, I find. Sure, they can be hard to take in real life, sometimes, with their relentless energy and optimism. But as race supporters, the ease with which they’re able to access enthusiasm is priceless.
That “good job!” or “great running!” doesn’t even have to be sincere, so long as it sounds like they put some effort into it. As male readers may appreciate, it’s like a faked orgasm. You might know it’s a faked orgasm. But if it’s done well enough, you still appreciate it.
There’s nothing worse, by contrast, than the desultory applause you get from some Irish race watchers. Silence would be preferable. When you’re struggling up a hill, against the wind, and there’s a bored bystander clapping on auto-pilot, sometimes in slow-motion, with an expression that says: “look at you, you feckin’ eejit!”, it drains your energy instead of adding to it.
So on Monday, I tried hard to channel my inner American. This doesn’t come naturally to me, I know. Being Irish is bad enough. But as a recovering northerner, a certain dourness will always be part of my personality, and no amount of therapy will eliminate it. All I can say is, I did my best.
It gets harder, mind you, towards the back of the field. This is where you hit the wall as a marathon supporter. It’s not that you don’t appreciate the effort the slow joggers or walkers make.
On the contrary, often, you can see from their age or shape or state of health that getting around the course in any time is an achievement. But whereas the front-runners pass you in the space of time it takes to say “good man!” or “c’mon the Blayney Rockets”, the back-markers present a different challenge.
By that stage, participants can be 100 metres apart. Clapping them as they approach, slowly, can sound sarcastic. As for verbal encouragement, your vocabulary of motivational slogans may be exhausted while they’re still 50 yards away. That can be embarrassing for both of you.
This is where one of my female water-dispensing colleagues put me to shame. Thanks to the race organisers’ inspired decision to include runners’ names alongside their numbers, she was able to approach individual back-markers with bottles and personalised greetings: “This is yours, Oliver”, she would say, or: “I’ve kept this for you, Mary”. It was charmingly done. I know if I were on the receiving end, and I’d been tempted to drop out, that sort of thing would shame me into finishing.
As noted, some people had good reasons to be at the back of the field. None better, probably, than a group of Army reservists who completed the course in full combat gear, with 30kg backpacks. To put that in perspective, I saw actual runners who didn’t weigh 30kg. And the soldiers’ long march was for a very good cause: the suicide prevention work of Pieta House. To which, if you’re feeling supportive, you can still contribute via the soldiers page at mycharity.ie/event/rdf_marathon_2013/