The Power of Presence

One year ago, I wrote about how I accidentally became a runner well into my forties, and my experience of running a race at the Blue Nose Marathon in Halifax. In particular, I examined how grateful I was to the supportive spectators who lined the streets and how their presence impacted my experience.

This year, I became a spectator.

I’ve been plagued by a “knee thing” for the last many months. It’s on the way to healing, but in the meantime, I haven’t been able to run as much. This has been very difficult and has made me fully realize how important a regular form of exercise is for me—for the strength of my body and for the state of my mind.

So, for the first time in six years, I didn’t register to run at the Blue Nose. I kept thinking that my knee would heal in time and I’d be able to sign up at the last minute. It didn’t happen. But two other amazing things did.

The first was that instead of running my own longer race, I chose to run with my daughter, who was doing the 4K youth run. I will admit I thought this would be an “easy” run, full of stops and water breaks. Perfect for someone who hasn’t been running much.

I was wrong.

One kilometer in, my daughter informed me that her goal was to run the race without stopping. “Good for you, honey. That’s great.” I said out loud, while on the inside I was saying “Oh, shit. Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

I ran by her side, seeing the determination on her face as she gradually picked up our pace. Her friends got swallowed up in the sea of runners behind us, and soon it was just her and I, our feet pounding the pavement, neither of us talking. We were really pushing it and we both knew it. And rather than searing knee pain, what I felt was a soaring spirit. I felt like I was back, and able to do this thing that I used to take for granted.

I’ve had a lot of running partners over the years, but never my daughter. She was quiet and focused and purposeful. And inspiring. I knew that in her eyes, I was still the mother who is a runner, not the mom who used to be a runner but now has a bum knee. And I could see that just by accompanying her, I was supporting her to run her fastest and her best

She pulled away from me in the last 50 metres to cross the finish line alone. If you are also a parent, you might view this as symbolically as I did. I was so very proud of her for leaving me in her dust.

The next day, the second amazing thing happened. My daughter and I got up early in the morning to watch the other races of the Blue Nose. As I stood with her at the finish line, watching the 10k finishers breeze past us, all my thoughts of “I’m supposed to be in the race, not watching” completely vanished. I was totally taken with the role of witness.

What a privilege, was all I could think, over and over. What an absolute honour to witness all these people’s huge accomplishments. There were the sprinters, who, wanting to give their all at the end of the race, booted it across that finish line, eliciting a massive shout-out from the crowd. There was the young couple – two women, obviously winded and walking, their hands clasped together, who looked at each other and silently said: “Let’s go!” and off they ran, lifting their joined hands together at the finish. There was the elderly woman, with a young man—her son or grandson?—also holding hands and beaming from ear to ear, limping and loping their way across the line.

I couldn’t take my eyes off any of them. I couldn’t cheer hard enough, and I couldn’t yell or clap loud enough. I loved looking into those strangers’ eyes and calling out the names written on their bibs. I loved seeing them smile or mouth the words “thank you.”

Both of these experiences of being present—first with my daughter, and then with the other runners—have got me thinking that events such as these are public arenas where we can be witnesses to the success of others as they attempt hard things. I wish there were more of these arenas. More places where we could give support to strangers who are trying. In all the different kinds of ways we try – to be better people, to accomplish goals we set for ourselves, or to even just survive.

I wish we could cheer for the harried parent in the supermarket, for the people collecting recyclables for money, pushing their heavy carts down the street, or for the one in five of us who is living with a mental illness or an addiction.

I wonder, dear reader, if you’ve found a way of doing this in your own life. Have you found a place where you’ve become the witness? The one who supports and yells out “you can do it!” and who encourages another to dig deep and find what they need inside of themselves?

When I ran the 10k last year, I felt enormous gratitude for the strangers who lined the streets and cheered their hearts out. And I remember being especially touched by the ones who had tears in their eyes and were visibly choked up.

Standing on the sidelines last Sunday, and cheering until my voice was hoarse and my hands stung from clapping, I understood. To be a witness to anyone’s challenge, success, accomplishment, or story is a big deal.

Every day, there are literally thousands of different stories passing you on the street. They move fast, but if you pay attention, if you really stop to watch and listen, you will feel that mysterious, intangible thing that connects us all. It’s the thing that allows us to inspire and support each other. And it’s powerful stuff.


Originally published on my blog “This Sweet World”