Guest Blogger Charlie Johnston

As of the end of 2011, my 62-year-old mother—who has struggled with her weight more or less as long as I can remember—had lost more than 70 pounds in a little more than a year. She eats smart and walks an almost three-mile loop most days. She’s getting faster at the loop, too. Her eventual goal is to run it, then to run farther and more often, then, on May 6, to run her first 10K.

My running is a big motivator behind mom’s first 10K; some friends have even gone so far as to say I am her hero, her running hero. Having occasionally overheard her talk about my races, it would be safe to say they are right. Little does mom (or they) know, this woman who has changed her lifestyle to keep up with her son on the sadistically long and steep stairways of Boston subway stations, this woman who frets over the way her exercise clothes fit despite my constant reassurance that they look great and will continue to look better and better until she has to replace them with smaller sets, this woman who excitedly reports the minutes she shaves from her walking loop, this woman who sings my praises almost daily, is actually my hero—my running hero.

At start lines of races big and small, I am ushered to the front (or very close to the front) of the pack. Some race directors even give me discounted and free entries to their events. Elite runners are entitled to even more benefits than me. Mom and the middle- and back-of-the-pack runners, on the other hand, don’t typically get such incentives and perks. Their concern isn’t with course records, but is instead with reaching the cutoff time of six or seven hours. I cannot fathom the perseverance it would take to finish a marathon in that much time. Their dedication is beyond admirable; it’s humbling, it’s heroic.

While there is nothing wrong with holding fast runners in high esteem, middle- and back-of-the-pack runners deserve every bit as much credit and hero worship. As impressed as mom and other runners are with my two-hour and 45-minute marathon, I am every bit as impressed with their three-mile loops and five-, six-, and seven-hour marathons.

I don’t fawn over Ryan Hall when I see him at marathon expos promoting The Hall Steps Foundation , or fantasize about someday running alongside Kara Goucher for a couple miles during a marathon. It’s not that I don’t recognize or respect the amazing talent and drive of elite athletes, I do, very much so, it’s just that I’m inspired by less likely heroes—heroes who face seemingly insurmountable odds with little more than the will to better themselves and accomplish something they previously wouldn’t have imagined was possible.

Ben Davis finished his first marathon in 2009 more than two hours behind the leaders, but did so after losing 135 pounds and using running to turn his life around. Since, he has completed numerous races, an Ironman, and has inspired thousands to get up off the couch and improve their lives. Davis, admittedly, is a hero to many—almost 1.5 million people have viewed his inspirational YouTube video —but countless more people are following and have followed similar, though less drastic and publicized, paths in their running journeys.

My friend and coworker Eileen Carter recently shared a story about a 10K during which race volunteers cleared out and dismantled the finish line before the final participants had crossed. Hadn’t those people just finished the same distance as everyone else that day? What’s more, it took real determination and heart to stick it out and get to that finish, especially if they did so dead last.

When I run and when I race, I think about these runners, about mom, about Davis, about the limping stranger I congratulated while walking along Central Park West hours after my own finish of the New York City Marathon but just minutes after his, and it pulls me through the hardest miles. These people are my running heroes, these people who will never know how it feels to break a finish tape or stand atop the winners’ podium are what makes our sport so special.

As I look ahead to mom’s 10K in May, I’m reminded of running legend Will Rogers’ famous quote, “We can’t all be heroes because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.” Though I won’t be sitting and deafening cowbell jingling will replace the clapping, I could not be more excited than I am to trade places with mom and cheer as my hero goes by.

Charlie Johnston is a magazine editor, travel writer, and photographer from northern Nevada. Since he started running in early 2008, he has run 31 full marathons, including a top 30 finish in the 2011 San Francisco Marathon and a personal best of 2:45:30 at the 2011 California International Marathon in Sacramento—2012 will be his fourth consecutive San Francisco Marathon and first as an official Ambassador of the race.