I didn’t expect to cry today. Worry and irritation, I expected, and exhaustion I knew would appear – all the normal emotions associated with taking two children to London in a pandemic (I have a hair chewer and a finger nibbler). But nothing prepared me for the sheer wall of emotion I felt within minutes of arriving at mile 12 of the London Landmarks Half Marathon and turned to face the oncoming stream of runners. There was no jostling for a view, and no press of the pack to lessen the blow – we could make eye contact for a good 10 seconds with any runner on our side of the street. We were there in good time – nearly half an hour before our runner (my husband) turned up. The emotional impact was astonishing.
Being a half marathon, the elite runners had gone early and any seriously elite would of course be in Tokyo. The vast majority of runners were wearing charity vests, and of these I spotted only one charity that wasnt related to illness or bereavement. Macmillan and Tommys were out in force – along with Cancer Research, British Heart Foundation, every individual cancer support charity, MIND, Grief Encounters etc. Many runners had the names of who they were running for on their vest. Many didn’t have the profile you might expect from a runner comfortable with 13 miles at a stretch and by mile 12, you could see the strain. But they kept going.
I don’t think anything could more forcibly reject the hideous quotation that one man’s death is a tragedy but a million is a statistic. The emotional weight of the stories held by those runners was overwhelming in its volume – within minutes the tears were flowing and I had to force myself to look for the names on the vests and start calling them out – as soon as I saw a charity vest relevant to my friends or family, I choked up again.
Why? Why an utterly unbidden and unexpected outpouring of such intensity watching a bunch of ordinary people put one foot in front of another? It wasn’t just sympathy for the runners – I didn’t know their stories, I just knew that so many of them had them. I don’t think it was just a response to the fact it was clearly a challenge. It felt more like a stripping away of any of life’s trappings to something raw and something real: That suffering inspires a response, and that response can be a statement of hope. That every life has its own unique significance, regardless of how long it is for – the Tommy’s team was testament to that alone. That whilst nothing could ever make up for the loss of a loved one, or a traumatised childhood, our response can be one of compassion – to reach out in determination to redeem the experience even of complete strangers. To respond to the gut wrenching pain by striving to make it better somehow.
My husband was running for NACOA- the National Association of Children of Alcoholics – and the funds raised by the team should finance the operations of their helpline for children for the best part of a year. I know his story and why this means so much to him. I don’t know the stories of the hundreds of others we saw today. But I applaud them all and am grateful to them for seeing something that prompted such an appreciation of the rawness and the depths of life.
The children grew vociferously hungry, and normality quickly resumed.