22. The Kindness of Runners

22. The Kindness of Runners

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

The Kindness of Runners

Winning has always meant much to me, but winning friends has meant the most.
 ~Babe Zaharias

Every so often, something happens that reminds you just how great our sport is. One of those somethings happened for me on a quiet summer morning in upstate New York. My wife and I were away for a long weekend, celebrating our first wedding anniversary at an old, sprawling Shawangunk Mountain resort. It was a beautiful place — a very oak-paneled-lobby, open-lake-swim, Sunday-lobster-bake, porches-and-rocking-chairs sort of hideaway.

Think The Shining, but with less blood in the halls and more croquet.

Thing was, I was training for a fall marathon at the time. So, beauty aside, I was a little anxious about the 14-miler I had planned for Sunday. Not about being able to run 14 miles, but about being able to do so on such unfamiliar turf. We were surrounded by “2,200 acres of scenic wilderness,” according to the booklet in our room, including 85 miles of trails. But I’d been having trouble keeping my bearings on them. (Hey, 85 miles of trails was about 71 miles more than I needed.) Doing an easy 4-mile loop was no problem, even for someone as navigationally challenged as me. Four miles, I could handle. But I was fairly certain I’d get lost and die trying to navigate a 14-mile run out there. The phrase “skeletal remains” leapt to mind.

But you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do, so I set out early Sunday morning with my wristband I.D. and a bottle of orange Gatorade from the gift shop. The sun was shining, which was nice. If I was going to get lost and die, at least it would happen in agreeable weather.

The first few miles rolled by reasonably well, despite a dead end and some backtracking. Then I saw them: A group of six or eight fellow runners, on the same trail, headed right for me.

As we neared each other, we exchanged the usual nods and greetings. Then I stopped. Feeling a little sheepish, I asked, “Umm… How far are you guys going?”

“20,” one of them said. “We just started.”

Even more sheepish: “You mind if I… uh… join you for part of it?”

“Sure.”

So I did. Off we went. And what followed were 10 of the nicest miles I think I’ve ever run.

Time flew by, and my newfound friends — all locals — knew the trails backward and front. The scenery, all ponds and pine and postcard vistas, was breathtaking. Even the pace was just right. We chatted here and there, as they told me a bit about the trails and the local running scene and themselves. They asked about me and my wife, my work and my running, so we talked about those things too.

Four of them were training for that fall’s New York City Marathon. A couple had run the Richmond Marathon, the race I was training for. (They gave me some pointers about the course.) One guy had run sub-3 hours at Boston a few months prior. A woman had started with the elites another year, also at Boston, which is pretty hard-core. They were active members of a local running club. Several of them were teachers. All of them were funny and thoughtful.

Just like that, my morning run had gone from “solo wander” to “group run.” And it was so seamless, happening so quickly, without question or fanfare. It all unfolded so… naturally. It almost didn’t occur to me to stop and appreciate how very cool it was.

But I did appreciate it, both during the run and afterward. That’s the thought that’s really stuck with me, to this very day: How great is our sport, where you can stumble across a group of strangers running in the middle of nowhere, and join them as if it’s the most natural thing in the world?

In a society more and more splintered, and drawn more and more to virtual, online “community,” it’s such a privilege to be part of a warm, far-reaching, real-life community. It’s just one of many, many things to love about running. But it’s one of the most satisfying things.

I know from talking with other runners that mine isn’t an isolated story. When you’re a runner in an unfamiliar place, very rarely are you ever truly alone, unless you want to be. Head out the door of your hotel in just about any city or town, and it’s fairly likely you’ll encounter a fellow runner or three at some point. (To paraphrase Yogi Berra: Wherever runners go, there you are.) And they’ll probably welcome a bit of company, if you ask. You’re a runner, after all. You must be a decent person. C’mon. Let’s run.

It’s a phenomenon I call “The Kindness of Runners,” and it cuts across social, racial, economic, and geographic lines. It’s a pretty marvelous thing.

•  •  •

Just shy of 2 hours into my own run, our group came to a fork in the trail. The locals told me they were going left, to finish their 20-miler; I should turn right, which would get me back to the resort at just around 14 miles.

I thanked them. They replied, “you bet” and “no problem” and “have a good one.” As I ran off, one of them turned to call out, “Happy anniversary!”

Then they rounded a bend, and vanished from sight.

•  •  •

Later that same year, I would bump into two of my Shawangunk trail buddies at the New York City Marathon expo. I was there selling and signing copies of my new book. They were there because they were running the race. I’ll admit, when they first approached me in my booth, I didn’t recognize them — they were wearing jeans and jackets, after all, not shorts and technical tees. And it had been months since our run together in the mountains. Besides which, the New York City Marathon expo is a dizzying place, teeming with foot traffic; you’re lucky to recognize your own mother in a crowd like that.

Still, as they shook my hand and reintroduced themselves, it all came back in a flash. Shawangunk! My best 14-miler ever! Yes! Hey, how are you?

We chatted for a minute or so, then more hand-shaking and well-wishing. Then they rejoined the swarm and I got back to hawking books.

The memories lingered, though. I couldn’t stop thinking back to that trail run in August, to the brilliant sunshine and the stunning views. More than anything, I recalled the companionship and camaraderie, and the warmth I felt — not from the sun, but simply from being out there, running. With some new friends.

~Mark Remy

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