The best explanation I have seen is a quote I posted here a few years ago. It is the first paragraph in 26.2 Marathon Stories by Katherine Switzer and Roger Robinson.
THE PRELUDE TO A MARATHON is one of life’s strangest yet most vivid times. It is a time of intensity yet relaxation, apprehension yet resolve; a time of deeply introspective solitude in the midst of the biggest jostling throng most of us will ever join. So many people, intent on a separate inward commitment, but united in one common physical endeavor. Our motive is private, the context public. We are strangers who are instant comrades, competitors bonded by the shared knowledge that we are all about to undertake one of the hardest tasks in our lives. Ahead lie strenuous effort, weariness, and pain, but we will endure it voluntarily, for the sheer enjoyment of trying."Strangers who are instant comrades". The person standing next to you at the start line understands what you are up against, and what you have been through just to get here. They understand because they have been through a similar journey themselves. There is this bond even if you have little else in common.
I was reminded of this sense of community last night when I was over at Sean and Marci's. They had both run the St. George Marathon the day before, and they told me all about the race over dinner and a glass of wine - the bonfires at the start line, all the great volunteers, every hill and turn on the course, the heat of the day, the times they struggled and the walls they pushed through.
And I was as excited to hear about their race, as I would have been to have run it myself. The connection of the running community extends far beyond race day morning. We love to hear stories about successes, and even failures, as another finish line is crossed.
There is a movie called Spirit of the Marathon" that I have seen a number of times. It follows six runners as they train for the Chicago Marathon. Along the way, it talks about the history of the marathon and includes interviews with a number of professional marathoners.
In the opening sequence, there are small snipits of these interviews, with historical footage of races playing in the background. In the last scene, a marathoner is shown winning a marathon, falling to his knees as his hands cover his face in joy and relief. The voice-over is another professional saying, "when you cross that finish line, it will change your life forever".
The sequence gets me every time. It seems melodramatic, but it is true on some level. That feeling of pushing through emotional and physical exhaustion to achieve something incredible. You can't bottle or adequately explain that feeling. It has to be experienced. And even watching someone else finish can bring back that feeling.
It sounds a little simplistic and maybe arrogant to say "you have to be there to understand", but maybe you do. But that is the thing - everyone should be there, at least once. Running is one of those rare sports where your "competitors" are rooting for you the whole way. And it is probably the only sport where you can participate with professional elites, on the same course on the same day, following in their footsteps no matter your skill level. How cool is that?
It is a very positive, welcoming community, and one of the easiest clubs to join. Just lace up your shoes.