The Houston Marathon Makes Me Cry

The Texas Story Project.

I grew up in a family that didn’t “do” January well. My mom and dad are shameless Christmas lovers, so when it was finally time to pack away the trees and the twinkle lights, there was always a slight melancholy in the air--a sense of time passing and of being pushed forward into the cold and gray. January can feel so open and unwritten, as spare as the back corner of the living room without a big, fat evergreen.

Make of it what you will that I ended up marrying a man born in January. After college, I also moved south and traded in those fierce, unseemly DFW winters for the milder, oftentimes straight-up glorious period in Houston when you get a break from summer. This helps.

And now that I’ve lived here for going-on-16 years, I’ve come to rely on another Houston tradition to enhance my appreciation of January--the Houston Marathon. Watching the marathon has become something of a tradition for my husband, kids, and me. It’s not something permanently affixed to the family calendar like Christmas, but most years we seem to find our way to the sidelines. Make no mistake, I’m no particular fan of running, and I haven’t the faintest interest in ever actually running a marathon. But I’ve learned over the years that spectating is its own reward.

The first time I watched the marathon, it was completely unplanned. Pre-kids, my husband and I used to live in some old apartments on Allen Parkway that in true Houston-style have now been razed. One fine January morning, we leisurely rolled out of bed and turned on the TV, only to discover that our front yard was on live feed. We decided to head outside to see what all the fuss was about, and found blocked-off roads, handmade motivational posters, and a throng of exhausted runners propelled by an eclectic crowd.

I’d never seen or experienced anything like this before. Part of me was feeling slightly self-conscious. Do we just walk up next to some strangers and start whooping and cheering for this other group of strangers who happen to be running? It didn’t take long before I realized that yes, that’s exactly what you do while watching the Houston Marathon. You whoop and holler and accept as your personal mission that every single stranger that passes will make it one more step, one more mile.

Except that I couldn’t. Because standing there in the midst of all that obvious effort and encouragement, I suddenly felt myself inexplicably overcome with emotion. I could feel the tears pooling behind my eyes and my jaw seizing up. Each time I attempted a “Great job!” I swallowed it down as my clenched mouth threatened to betray a heaving sob. Bewildered by my body’s visceral response and more than a little embarrassed, I took a few quiet moments to hide behind my sunglasses and collect myself as one runner after the next endured that final stretch.

Maybe it’s having grown up in the world of ballet, where the idea is to make something exceedingly difficult look not only effortless, but ethereal. Maybe it’s just my inborn compulsion to try hard mixed with a reticence to show outwardly just how hard I’m trying. But I felt an immediate connection to these runners who looked tired and worn, their faces straddling the fragile line between quitting and persisting. Many of them had trained months or even years for this day, and now none of that mattered. They had no choice but to face each step, each new moment as if it were the first. Their struggle was both mental and physical, both public and unglamorous. Yet for once, this march toward progress was celebrated in a showing of generosity that can seem so rare among strangers.

Sure many of the bystanders were friends and family of the runners, but that didn’t stop people from cheering just as loudly for the people they didn’t know. Each time a new crop of runners would pass, the crowd reacted as if these runners were the only people to ever get so far in the race--as if we were all counting on them, and their success mattered deeply to us all. How often in life do we make the effort to look a stranger in the eye, much less cheer her on with nothing to gain from the transaction other than a fleeting connection? How often do we outwardly acknowledge how much we rely upon one another in the face of adversity or triumph? This was the human race at its finest--a swelling up of our deepest needs and aspirations--just with spandex and cowbells thrown in for good measure.

Since that day, I’ve watched the marathon from points all over the city--Memorial Park, West University, Tanglewood. Somehow the race seems to consistently land on the kind of perfect January day that only happens in Houston--copious sunshine; clear, blue skies; just chilly enough. The backdrop of that January sun makes it all even sweeter. I cry every time. My kids think the tears are hilarious.

I’ve never made it over to the finish line, which for me is beside the point. After all, 26.2 miles later, the runners do end up back downtown, only blocks from where they started. For me, the marathon is not so much a matter of winning, or pulling for someone extraordinary, or reaching the unattainable. It’s a chance to revel in something altogether more vulnerable and tender--the deep sense of relief and the unadulterated joy that comes from striving together.

Amy Lindsey lives in Houston with her husband, two children, two cats, a hamster, and a variable number of fish. She is a teacher at St. Catherine's Montessori.

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