By Becky De Oliveira

I ran my first marathon in 2013 when I was 41. The runners were of all shapes and sizes. All ages. All ethnicities. Some looked super marathon-ready, like they’d been training all their lives. Indeed, one Australian participant was in the midst of his bid for a world record—aiming to run 160 marathons in a single year. He had run the Indianapolis marathon the day before and was dressed—appropriately, I thought—as Superman. There were people who, frankly, seemed too fat to run, and I found myself surprised over and over again by how many people are strong enough to do more than you might think them capable. Some participants appeared elderly and very frail. “How are so many people runners?” I thought.

I hung out at the finish line for a few minutes after I’d crossed it myself. A man I’d run with for several miles—from around mile 11 to mile 15—was standing there too, wrapped in an aluminum blanket, waiting for his brother-in-law and his father to finish. This was his 19th marathon, and he’d done all kinds of crazy runs—including a race that required participants to run up a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado and then back down. One of his goals, he told me, was to run the world’s “hottest” marathon, which takes place in a California desert at three o’clock in the afternoon when the temperature is something like 120 degrees Fahrenheit. “I just might have to check that one off,” he mused while I found myself thinking exactly the opposite. If I were to check it off, it would be off a list of things I have momentarily considered and decided that I will never do: Methamphetamine. Karaoke. Scuba diving. We congratulated each other, exchanged names for the first time. And then we just stood there, watching runners cross the finish line, watching the race director give each one a hug and sometimes a slap on the back.

The runners crossed the finish line in all kinds of states—and I got an even clearer sense of the variation in finishes from scrolling through the hundreds of photos posted to the race’s Facebook page. Some runners almost collapsed from exhaustion, others burst into tears. Some jogged across the line with big smiles on their faces as if they’d merely run from a nearby corner café. One man carried a large American flag across the finish line. A number of participants were pushing children in strollers or disabled people in wheelchairs. There were two stilt-walkers who completed an entire marathon precariously balanced high above the ground—one of them dressed as a scarecrow. What was apparent was that it did not matter at all how you finished—it only mattered that you finished. The race director hugged you just as hard if you managed the whole thing in less than three hours or if it took six or seven. You got a hug and medal even if you’d hit the wall and were incredibly grumpy and uncommunicative. People cheered for those who were fat and limping, those with ugly sweat stains under their armpits, those dressed in unattractive workout gear. If you were wearing a dumb-looking hat, people cheered. If your thighs jiggled. If you were clearly anorexic. The positivity throughout the race—from both the spectators and participants—was inspiring. People called each other “runner,” and delivered random supportive comments whenever the mood struck them. “Looking good, runner,” they’d say—often to a runner who was not looking particularly good at all. How this lifts the spirit!

It’s hard to describe the love I had for all of humanity as I stood there. Humanity in all its shapes and sizes and states. Some of them—from a purely objective point of view—much better than others. But each one of them moving exactly according to the way God designed them. Each one beautiful and loved. Each one perfect in this moment. Each one perfect in all the moments to come. I could have stayed all day and simply stared at them the way you stare at any of the elements (fire, water), but I knew that my husband and two sons were waiting in a nearby fast food parking lot to throw their arms around me and admire my medal. We would find a Thai restaurant and each order something different and taste each other’s dishes. My legs would stiffen in the car on the way home, but we’d light a fire and my son Joshua would beat me at Scrabble and then I would stretch out on the sofa and watch the flames and read a book for the rest of the evening. In the morning, I’d take a stroll and look for my friend Steve. “How’d you do?” he’d ask, and I’d tell him that I did awesome. Like I always do. Like people always do.

I said goodbye to my marathon friend and wished him well for the future. “Take care,” he said. “Keep running.” You can count on that, I thought as I made my way, limping slightly on my sore left knee through a maze of bananas and bagels and vats of chili donated by Wendy’s, and containers of frozen custard from Culver’s. Booths selling shirts and charms and bumper stickers and protein powder. People hugging and bouncing up and down and taking photographs.

Becky De Oliveira is a teacher, writer, and graphic designer working on special projects for the Pacific Union Conference from her home in Colorado.