One of the most unnerving, exhilarating places you might find yourself in is a corral at the starting line of a marathon. For starters, aren't corrals for livestock? When you look around at your comrades in competition, they're anything but cattle.
You can always tell who the marathon virgins are- they're the ones wearing Lululemon layers and weighed down by a camelback and a belt stuffed with Gu just in case. (That was me in October 2012 at the Nike Women's Marathon.) Then you've got your marathon addicts who know the ropes- they're braving the chilly morning start with layers that can be easily sacrificed somewhere along the way. They've abandoned the camelback and trust the aid station support to meet their race day needs. They may have picked up a Cliff bar at the Expo the day before and stuffed it in their sports bra just in case, but they're clearly looking forward to the beer tent at the finish line and aren't worried about dying.
Then you have the one-offs. When you look around the crowd at the start of any marathon, you can literally play Bingo as you spot the following:
-The guy who is wearing circa 1972 teeny tiny running shorts and nothing else, save for the Nikes on his feet (no socks, of course) that look like they were given to him by Steve Prefontaine himself. In fact, maybe this is the ghost of Prefontaine. Who knows. But you will wonder why he's back here with you and all the other non-elites when clearly he came here to win the entire race.
-The Firefighter wearing full gear. This one always chokes me up. You know this person isn't here for bragging rights. They're paying homage to something bigger than all of us and it's always a humbling thing to see.
-The close relative of the Prefontaine ghost- Mr. Barefoot Runner. I read Born to Run (Christopher McDougal) and I understand the attraction to the running style of the Tarahumira, but let's face it. Ancient tribe people aren't running on asphalt through downtown Phoenix or Dallas or Little Rock. There's no need to be crazy like that. Shoes are cool.
-The Bandit. This is the guy who looks like he woke, up, rolled out of bed and decided to see what all the fuss was about on the blocked off city street. He's usually wearing jeans and flip flops. The first time I saw him, I thought he was there to support someone running and was just waiting with them in the corral. But no. Somewhere down the race course, he can be spotted again. Running faster than a lot of people, in jeans and flip flops.
-The kid who has a basketball. You scratch your head and think, surely he's not dribbling for 26.2 miles. But then he passes you in the first few miles, and you see him again on an out-and-back, and he's still dribbling. You can't help but admire that.
-The Great Grandparent. There are usually several of these to be spotted, and I find them wholly inspiring. You don't stop running because you get old; you get old because you stop running.
-The guy or gal carrying the American Flag. It makes you proud to be an American to know the colors are running the race with you.
-The reason you keep coming back. Every time I have ever started a marathon, I have looked around and easily spotted people who clearly have more challenges in their lives than I do; if you've had this experience then you know what I mean. I will never forget, in the ten marathons I've run thus far, the people who have inspired me to keep coming back. I have run beside people with cerebral palsy, Parkinson's, and other conditions that have to make this kind of activity pure hell on their body. I've run behind people wearing shirts with the names of loved ones they've lost to cancer. I've run beside people who are trying to survive cancer. I've been passed by runners missing entire limbs, never to catch up with them again and knowing they finished well before me. There are always people out there, doing the same thing you're doing under circumstances that remind you to be grateful and inspire you to be better.
When you tell people you're running a marathon and they make comments about how they could never run that far or for that long, or how boring, or how miserable 26.2 miles must be... it's easy to see that they're the ones missing out. A marathon will only change you for the better, and it's not the distance that changes you. It's who you meet along the way.