The Sunday morning I had scheduled for myself seemed exhausting but simple enough. I would wake up at 5 a.m., eat, stretch, and work my way downtown, into Corral 2 of Raleigh's inaugural Rock 'n' Roll Marathon by the prescribed 7 o' clock start. I'd run 13.1 miles, rest for a spell, maybe eat something else. Then I'd mow the grass, hopefully before the afternoon sun pushed the day's temperature past 80. The plan, however sweaty, went mostly as expected.
What I didn't expect, however, was to tear up every few minutes as the push mower's engine rattled and roared around me.
I wasn't sad about my race time. I had maintained a pace that I didn't think possible amid this season's storm of pollen. My tear ducts weren't reacting to the allergenic clouds I created while mowing, either. No, after I'd gassed the engine but before I'd primed the lines, I glanced at my phone one final time: "Two deaths reported at Rock 'n' Roll Marathon." My worry was real, then—I'd seen a stranger die that morning.
After several twists through the grounds of Dorothea Dix, the half-marathon emptied into the outskirts of downtown Raleigh through a series of low slumps and small valleys. With two miles remaining, the race turned hard left and routed more than 12,000 runners through a massive climb up Lenoir Street. Reaching the top felt wonderful, the success that spells the beginning of the end. When we turned right, though, everyone realized there was at least one more slow, long climb, a narrow vein that would shoot us all through the Boylan Heights neighborhood.
"Oh, Jesus," yelled the man next to me when the challenge became clear. I'd been running near him for a few miles, so I offered a word of encouragement.
That's when I looked left and realized that the steady incline wasn't his issue: On the ground, someone else had collapsed, and a small team pounded on his chest in rhythm as dozens, hundreds, thousands of feet maintained rhythms of their own. For an instant, I convinced myself it was street theater from the neighborhood kids, mischievous types with more macabre personalities than the smiling faces who'd offered "Free High Fives" along much of the course. But this man's legs weren't moving. None of the paramedics looked up. Those standing on the sidewalk were silent and stunned, no longer cheering. The rest of us pressed on. What could we do to help aside from staying out of the way?
About a mile later, as the pack turned right out of Boylan Heights and climbed the final hills of Morgan Street shortly before the finish, I spotted someone else in trouble, this time several hundred yards ahead. She had stepped to the left of the herd. Though she advanced toward the finish, she wobbled and weaved, as though her head still spoke a syntax her legs had suddenly discarded. She started sprinting, a race for the finish line.
I caught up with her just as she collapsed, her bright pink shirt slamming to a sudden stop against the warming black asphalt beneath. Someone rushed to lift her up, wrapping the fallen runner's weight around her own exhausted frame. For the first time in 100 minutes, I stopped listening to the automated voice in my headphones, the one telling me how far and fast I had gone and how much more I had to go. This time, I could do something.
"Do you need help making it?" I asked. It was a small sacrifice—none at all, really. But it's all I had left to offer. Looking up and grimacing, they both said no. I lingered a second more to see if they changed their mind, but instead, they hobbled ahead. I turned around, found my stride again and headed home, happy for the chance to mow the lawn.