As the last screams and shouts fade away from the Ironman finish-line, and I turn away from the beach-front condos to begin the daunting 26.2 mile run ahead of me, I make a mental note of my progress. Swim, check. Bike, check. Run. Okay, now onto the last stretch of the race.
In the Florida course, the mass of humanity funnels itself into the single-file flow of runners who snake through the quaint neighborhoods of Panama City and into the desolate trails of a St. Andrews State Park -- then return and repeat. Aide station volunteers scream out "Water! Gatorade!" Power Gel!" to all the passers by. But soon the footsteps and my own breathing fill my ears louder than any spectator ever could.
As I head out of town, I am cheerfully greeted by those costumed characters who offer me beer shots instead of water. They are wild and crazy and fun! But as I tick off the miles, my journey becomes more solitary, and a man standing alone picks me out of the crowd and calmly, quietly encourages me: "Good job, Gorilla. Keep going."
I had been yelled at by thousands of spectators who seemed to draw more attention to themselves than to those struggling runners for whom they are cheering. But this man didn't make a commotion. He simply stated an affirmation that I heard and took heed. When I pass him the second time, I am not expecting him to be there. Again he singles me out. "Okay Gorilla, you're doing fine. Keep it up."
Daylight savings robs the town of Panama City of it's afternoon hours with sundown at 4:51p.m. By Loop Two, twilight is setting in and the portable spotlights begin to hum as the generators kick on. The runners become a bit more spread out and "to themselves". As I round the corner once again, my personal cheerleader is waiting on the same patch of grass. He's found my jersey in the shadowy darkness and quietly restates his powerful words: "You've got this one, Gorilla."
At mile 24, I passed him a final time. This time, I expect him there for me, I stand a little taller, run a little prouder and smile as I look his way. "Congratulations Gorilla. You're there. Nice job, today."
You can't escape the hype of the family and friends who await the Ironman finishers. Their cheers and screams energize and rejuvinate each participant and remind them that they did not get here alone.
But there is something to say for the mental uplift a single person can give another just by acknowledging a name, a bib number, or a logo on a jersey. The power of a quiet human voice can communicate louder than any stadium-packed crowd. Don't ever doubt the power of one.
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