Why We Run: Lessons From a Marathon Finish Line

Watching the finish line of a marathon tells us a lot about the nature of running—and even the nature of being human.

I was a bystander, there to support my father. An avid runner, he claimed it was his last marathon. I waved him off at the starting line and turned to ponder how I’d fill the hours ahead.

I drifted along the edges of the course for a while, eventually making my way to the finish line. A concrete wall about three feet off the ground and bathed in sunlight caught my attention. It was the perfect point of observation.

As I settled into my spot, I felt waves of emotion roll over me as I watched each runner cross the finish line. They each represented something about the nature of running—and in many ways the nature of being human. Marathons take an incredible amount of discipline, commitment, and endurance. After all, the modern marathon is based on an ancient Greek story of a messenger’s run from Marathon to Athens. The man delivered his message, gasped for breath, collapsed, and died. While not often deadly, these races are tough.

So why do we run?

There’s something metaphorical, even magical, about a marathon—it’s a snapshot of a human story. It’s triumph over struggle through sheer will and determination.

And struggle these runners did. Many limped across the finish line. Others conveyed their anguish through pained faces. Amazed at their resolve, I wondered where they found the inspiration to persevere.

During times of struggle, some of us dig deep into an otherwise hidden well of personal strength. During the marathon, I watched runners draw such motivation from two places: personal, unique inspiration that pushed and propelled from within, and outward love and support that held, lifted, and pulled people forward.

I couldn’t know every individual’s reason for running that day, but some racers did display their motivations through T-shirts or other outward signs. I saw remembrance shirts for loved ones passed and shirts reading “Boston Strong.” One woman ran in fire fighter gear. Another ran the entirety of the marathon with the American flag.

Many used their inner discipline as an inspiration tool, with slogans like “training, commitment, victory,” “your pace,” or even “excuses suck.” Yet others tapped into their spirituality with “running like I’m running to heaven,” or simply “be the finish.”

But inspiration also came from the sidelines.

The love and support from the crowd was incredible to witness. One man held a sign for hours that said, “Run with Purpose in Every Step.” Another stood and cheered for every single person that passed. Hours went by and he never lost his enthusiasm. The more a runner struggled, the more the crowd rose up in support. “You can do it!” “Just a little longer!” “You got this!”

As some of the runners rounded the last few turns, children ran out to greet their mothers and fathers. A young couple held hands. One woman began to struggle and almost stopped within sight of the finish line until a fellow runner came up to her, placed her hand lovingly on the woman’s back, and the two walked side-by-side to the end.

Crossing the finish line was the pinnacle moment. Some reached out in gratitude to their supporters or back to their comrades. Many grabbed the hand of another person running across the finish and lifted their arms high into the air in victory. Babies and children were tossed around like confetti. Hugs and high-fives littered the scene. Some just looked up to the sky with soft smiles.

It was clear: running was not about getting from start to finish. It was about the experience, the journey, the people, the pitfalls, the setbacks, the lessons, and the triumphs.

And that’s life.

Sometimes we are the runner—deep in the struggle or steady and focused on the path ahead. Sometimes we are the helping hand, reaching out in love and support. Sometimes we are the guy standing at the last corner, cheering for every person who passes by.

And sometimes, we’re just there—taking it all in, glad to have had the experience.

Nicole-HarrisOuter truth-seeking journalist turned inner truth-seeking yogi, Nicole Harris now writes freelance and teaches yoga. Her practice on the mat began in Minnesota in 2011 and eventually led her to teaching in Florida. Her true passion is to cultivate awareness and live from that honest, real space as much as possible. She finds her quickest ways to get there are through nature, adventure, and travel. The deepest way is through a meditative yoga practice.