Of the thousands of folks who cheer on runners in the Baltimore… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
Along the 26.2 urban miles that form today's Baltimore marathon, runners aiming for the finish line will slog through the city's best neighborhoods and some of its worst past intersections where hundreds of people have gathered to cheer and along desolate avenues where they hear nothing but the soft thump of rubber soles hitting concrete.
People will scream for them and at them. They'll toss candy and splash water and hold signs. But in the entire city, there's just one guy who will give runners nearing the end of the race what they might need most — something partly cheesy, quite furry and wholly heartfelt.
A little eye of the tiger.
"I saw him the first year that I ran," says Brad Drummond, a 35-year-old pulmonary and critical care physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "It's a particularly demoralizing part of the course from the psyche standpoint. You're coming up the hill and you see this guy — he's on the roof of his car in a tiger outfit. Mentally you start getting picked up again."
The Tiger Guy is not just costumed; he's also blasting the "Survivor" song "Eye of the Tiger," the unsubtle ode to achievement Sylvester Stallone chose to pump up "Rocky III."
"If you Google Baltimore marathon and 'Tiger Guy,' all these blogs, all these sites, they're all talking about the Tiger Guy," Drummond says. "He's got this underground cult following, this masked man identity."
Pete Mulligan, who's run eight Baltimore marathons, makes a point of looking for Tiger Guy, near mile 23, as he's climbing a hilly stretch of Guilford Avenue at 30th Street.
"You make that left and you can see it, like a little party at the top of the hill," Mulligan says. "They're playing that song, and it's great. It's one of the things you do remember."
All of the endurance athletes that Tiger Guy has encouraged with his antics and his anthem might be surprised to learn that the striped one isn't and has never been a runner himself. Truth be told, he's not even that sporty.
He's merely Nate Sweeney, a 32-year-old Charles Village resident with two dogs, a steady job at a nursing home and a tiger suit he wanted to get some wear out of.
Rewinding a bit, Sweeney first cheered at a race in 2003, when one of his good friends entered the Milwaukee marathon. He traveled there with some buddies who all wore T-shirts with a tiger logo — he brought the boom box and a recording of "Eye of Tiger" ready to play on repeat mode.
When he got back to Baltimore, it was time for the city's marathon, so he slipped on the shirt and walked the boom box a few blocks from his home to the Mile 23 marker, where he found a spot on the corner, turned the music on and stayed there for about six hours until the last runner huffed past.
"We played that song over and over and over and over again," Sweeney says. "It's the best running song ever and one of the most fun things you could possibly do."
And so, the next year, there Sweeney was again. And then again. And so on. But it was only after he showed up at the race a couple years ago in a full-body tiger suit of synthetic fur, that his place in the annals of race day fandom became sealed.
The suited Sweeney has spent every race day at that Guilford Avenue spot — except when he was in graduate school and had a Saturday class that couldn't be missed. If it rains, he's cheering — despite a water-logged costume. If it's broiling hot, he sweats and endures.
He's taken to jumping onto the top of his car so that runners can better see him — a tactical advantage that's left his Toyota Matrix with a permanently dented roof.
He prides himself on always being in place early enough to see the first elite runner sail past and staying however late it takes to infuse the marathon's caboose with the energy he or she needs to power through the last three miles. The tiger will pounce down from his car-roof perch and jog the block with a racer, if the tiger thinks the racer needs it.
Every year someone stops running for however long it takes to wrap their tired arms around his furry bulk and squeeze. Sweeney loves those hugs.
"People are just ridiculously grateful," Sweeney says. "It's the best possible thing to do for your karma — cheering for strangers in the middle of an absolutely miserable experience."
This year he's hoping to double the tiger experience, by having a friend in a white tiger suit join him.
It's not that Sweeney roots for any old thing. Orioles don't excite him. And he's lucky if he remembers to turn on the TV for the Ravens. There's just something about the idea of an individual battling his own body and his own mind to reach a finish line that inspires Sweeney in a way that team sports do not.
"This isn't someone's weekly softball game. This is someone striving toward a goal, a major accomplishment in their life, something monumental," he says. "It is all in the person — and it's more fun to cheer for that."