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Connections

In praise of Boston Marathon spectators

When you’re running and the needle is on empty, one thing keeps you going. The hordes of fans encouraging you not to give up.

Gracia Lam

GROWING UP IN BOSTON in the ’70s, I didn’t know our Marathon was a world-famous sporting event. All I knew was that my dad got excited when Patriots Day arrived. And I remember feeling awestruck by the enthusiasm of the enormous crowds into which we crammed ourselves on Commonwealth Avenue.

For these reasons, I swallowed hard and accepted a charity spot in the 2009 Boston Marathon. At 36, I’d never run more than 5 miles in my life. But a cherished bib number had fallen into my lap just six weeks before race day. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

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By the time I arrived at the staging area in Hopkinton, I had a much clearer idea of how hard this was going to be. I popped some ibuprofen and hoped for the best.

The first several miles are pretty easy. You’re excited to be on your way, and the human traffic jam conveniently prevents you from making tough decisions about how hard to push. But as the miles pile up and your freshness fades, the Big Question looms: Will I be able to finish this thing?

That’s when “it” begins to happen. You reach the Wall of Sound — the extraordinary women of Wellesley College, waving placards and screaming your name, who give you a new burst of energy. Before you know it, you’re halfway home.

By mile 20, the spring in your step is long gone. Heartbreak Hill rises in front of you, and though you’ve done some hill training, you have a bad feeling about it. At that moment, two of your best friends suddenly appear alongside you in street clothes, yelling and clapping and making fools of themselves to make you smile. And smile you do. Boy, was that thoughtful of them. They hadn’t even told you they were coming out today.

Soon thereafter, it becomes clear why they call the next stretch “the Haunted Mile.” The needle is on empty. So what’s going to keep you going? Answer: The hordes of fans, stacked five and six deep in some places, high- fiving you and encouraging you not to give up. I think about my dad, who so wisely set us up along this stretch of road more than 30 years ago. Did he have any idea how important the cheering would be to runners here?

As downtown appears in the distance, the crowds grow more excited; they begin to tell you you’re almost there. It feels really good to hear someone say that aloud.

It’s beginning to sink in that you’re going to finish the marathon. And what you’re feeling now is appreciation for all the people who’ve carried you to this point. Of course you want to embrace the family and friends waiting for you at that finish line, who’ve faithfully supported your not entirely logical desire to do this. But you’re also keenly aware you’re just one of thousands of runners today, each struggling to complete a journey of his or her own. And though these personal journeys are unknowable to the spectators, our brother and sister Bostonians are here anyway, year after year, rain or shine, in heat or cold, to cheer the runners on.

I live in Washington, D.C., now and was missing the people of my hometown more than usual after this year’s tragedy. So I put on my 2009 Boston Marathon finisher’s jersey and went for a run around Capitol Hill. I got quite a few waves of recognition and some thumbs up.

Whether I’m in the race or on the sidelines, I know I’ll be in Boston in 2014. Either way is fine, because the spectators are just as important as the runners. Of course, I am also defiant. Like caring for one another, that’s in our DNA, too. I guess I’ll see you there.

Patrick Brannelly grew up in West Roxbury. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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