On being ... a cheerleader

By Ingrid Sapona

I like metaphors. I often find them helpful when I’m trying to make sense of things. An old chestnut that I’ve always liked is: life is a marathon, not a sprint. I try to remind myself of that as I rush around trying to get things done. Or, better yet, when I’m impatient for things to happen, like when I’m waiting for clients to decide on whether to go ahead on a project.

Other than thinking about them in terms of a metaphor for life, I never really thought much about marathons until two years ago. No, I’ve not taken up running. (Never have liked running and can’t imagine that I ever will.) My involvement came about when the food bank that I’m on the board of decided to use the Toronto Waterfront Marathon as a fundraising event.

Unlike traditional charity runs that usually support just one cause (like the Run for the Cure, which raises money for breast cancer research and awareness), the Toronto Waterfront Marathon is open to any charity that wants to field a team to raise pledges for the charity. To further sweeten the deal, the marathon organizers offer $5,000 to the charity that raises the most, to the charity that has the biggest team, and to the charity that raises most per team member.

I thought this was a great opportunity for the food bank, so last year I agreed to put together a team and make the marathon one of our fundraising events. Then, when the marathon organizers asked City Council for suggestions of groups that might participate in a “cheering section challenge”, which carries another $5,000 prize, the food bank was nominated.

I don’t mind admitting I felt a bit put out by the whole cheering section thing. I didn’t really buy the event organizers’ argument that the runners need to be cheered on. And, if having bands and crowds along the route did make the event more appealing for runners, it seemed rather cheeky to get charities and community groups to do the work of organizing them. But, given the money at stake, we agreed to do it.

So, with a lot of help from the marathon organizers (they found a band for our section and, as they did with all the cheering sections, they provided the audio equipment and cheering kits), we managed to put one together. We didn’t win the prize, but it was such a positive experience that I agreed to organize the food bank’s cheering section again this year.

So, the 2007 marathon was this morning. Though we didn’t win the cheering section prize this year either, I’m quite sure that all of us out there cheering this morning left feeling energized and somehow enriched, despite the scratchy throats and tired feet.

Because of the location of our cheering station, when the runners pass us on their way out it’s early in the race and everyone’s pumped. They’re running in packs -- sometimes talking amongst themselves -- and many acknowledge the band by pumping their arms in the air to the beat. They kind of breeze past, concentrating on their pace and stride. Some acknowledge us with a nod, but not many make eye contact. A few look rather amazed, however, that strangers would get up so early and make their way down to the lakeshore and stand there waving, cheering, and ringing cow bells.

I’ll admit that early in the race I feel a bit self conscious standing there cheering on total strangers. Every now and then I wonder whether I’ve gotten a look that said, “Who are you? What are you doing here?” When that happens I remind myself that I’m there trying to win that prize for the food bank.

When the runners come past us the second time, however, the feel is very different. Those doing the full marathon are about one third of the way into the race and most are still smiling, though for some, the smiles have given way to a look of weariness, if not pain. And, because the pace has slowed a bit, there’s lots more eye contact. Whenever I make eye contact with someone I offer a bigger smile and a louder cheer. The look on their face makes it clear they know that I appreciate their achievement and that seems to fuel them.

When the half-marathoners come back past us the vibe is different again. They’re well past the half-way mark of their race and most look tired. Some are mixing walking with their running. When I see this, instead of just giving them a whoop, I yell out, “Good job, keep going”. This direct encouragement almost always results in a smile and silent “thank you” mouthed, with many quickening their pace to a jog. In those moments the energy exchange between the runner and me, the cheerer, is palpable.

As the morning continues and the gaps between runners grow, I have more time to think about marathons in the abstract, and that’s when the old chestnut about life being a marathon comes to mind. But this time, instead of just thinking about being a runner in my own marathon called life, I think about the role of the cheerleader. I think about those who come in contact with our lives intentionally or accidentally but who manage to help us along when we’re weary -- sometimes just by acknowledging a challenge we’re facing.

Unfortunately, in real life cheering sections aren’t strategically stationed like they are on the marathon route -- but that doesn’t mean that we don’t come across cheerleaders or that we can’t cheer others on. From now on I’m going to try to pay attention to the little things others say and do that encourage me and when I’m around someone who’s looking weary or tired I’m going to try to remember to take on the roll of the cheerleader. After all, even though we all must run our own race, we’re not alone on the marathon route.

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


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