"Thanks for being out here."
"Have a great day."
If I heard those comments once, I heard them a hundred times — or more — from the 1,000 or so runners in last weekend's JFK 50 Mile ultramarathon.
As a race volunteer, I was positioned at the White Rocks overlook atop South Mountain. I had awakened at 4:30 a.m., driven to the top of Lamb's Knoll and hiked about a half-mile into the woods along the Appalachian Trail to reach my assigned post.
Runners from the first start, at 5 a.m. in Boonsboro, began to reach me around 6:15 a.m. As the minutes passed and the darkness began to fade, the volume of runners increased.
As I cautioned them to watch their footing on the rocky terrain and pointed them to the sharp right turn that prevented them from a headfirst tumble into the forest below, many of them took the time to speak to me.
Mind you, they had just climbed more than 1,200 feet in the span of 5 1/2 miles, wearing headlamps and carrying flashlights to guide them through the darkness. The temperature was in the low 30s. And they still had more than 44 miles to go.
Even so, they thought it appropriate to thank me for being there.
The final participants from the early start passed me around 6:45 a.m., leaving me nearly an hour to myself before the first runners from the 7 a.m. start arrived.
As I sat atop the rock outcropping — watching the sunrise and looking over the valley below — I felt refreshed by what I had experienced.
We live in a world where each day, we hear stories of domestic violence, crimes against children and corruption in business and government.
But on this morning, these people who were putting themselves to the ultimate physical test bolstered my faith in humanity. Their simple words of gratitude proved that human beings, for the most part, are good at heart.
As the second wave of runners passed, the thanks continued.
"Thanks for keeping us from going over there," some said, pointing to the rock outcropping that hadn't been visible to the earlier runners.
Some even stopped for photos, asking if I'd mind snapping a picture on their cellphones.
Hours later, I met a co-worker at Dam No. 4, the aid station at 41.8 miles. He was participating in the event for the fifth time and had asked if I would help him through the final stretch along rural roads to Williamsport.
As we walked and jogged along the final eight-plus miles to the finish, darkness began to fall. And an interesting thing happened.
Many of the same voices from the morning began to reappear.
"Way to go."
"Keep it up."
Despite the toll that nearly 50 miles had taken on their bodies, despite their own pain and suffering, these men and women found it in themselves to encourage a fellow competitor.
If that's not reason for hope, I don't know what is.