Thursday, September 15, 2011

Running the Race (and watching it)

We like running in our family.  I've been a runner of some sort since junior high, and have made it a significant part of my lifestyle for the last several years.  My wife started running as an adult, and now has three half-marathons to her credit (and closing in on number four).  Our oldest son has been a cross country runner since sixth grade and is now in his senior season.  This Saturday is the famous (infamous to some) New Prairie invitational, which is the largest high school sporting event in the state. It's a lot of fun to run and a lot of fun to watch.

One of the things about running is that it gives you time to sort out your thoughts.  One day this last week while running, my wife was thinking about this sport--the people who run and the people who support them.  When she got back, she put words to page in a particularly eloquent apologia for runners and running fans.  I quote it here in its entirety.

"I’m a fan of runners.  Runners are a different breed.  They rise in the early morning to put in mile after mile of training.  Telling their bodies it’s normal to do this, get used to it. Get stronger.  And when race day comes, again they are rising early. Warming up those muscles, reminding them, this is what you were made for, this is what you’ve trained for.   You’ve done this before. Remember the miles you’ve put in. Remember those hours upon hours of lonely runs through neighborhoods which were still asleep. Their day hasn’t begun yet.  You refuse to stay in bed.

 During a race, some fans line the course. Maybe a favorite runner is seen once, or twice on the course if you’re lucky and don’t mind doing a little running yourself to get a brief peek as the pack rolls by.  Football or basketball crowds can number into the hundreds or even thousands.  There aren’t nearly that many here.  But there are a few parents, friends, and families who’ve seen the day to day challenge of being a runner.  They’ve witnessed at least a part of what it means for a runner to discipline her mind and body in order to subject it to things way beyond what’s comfortable or easy.  They understand that a runner has chosen to do something hard.  

And certainly not for the glory that awaits them at the end of it.  No roar of a large crowd likely awaits them at the end of a race.  No being hoisted onto anyone’s shoulders. No basking in the ongoing recognition by those around them of their sweet success.  And for most runners, no award awaits them for taking a first or second place. They were never close to the front.  They don’t run for that. They run because somehow it has become part of them.

So, what does await them then?  Simply, the satisfaction that comes from pushing yourself toward a difficult goal and eventually reaching it.  To run.  Yes, in virtual anonymity, but to run and to finish with your head held high. 

Do we as a culture really understand what it means to support this kind of athleticism?

We’re a culture that loves “winners”. We love celebrating the victories that are so straightforward in various team sports.  The team with the most points at the end wins. Congratulations to them!  But let’s not forget these other athletes that don’t have the benefit of the hundreds or thousands of cheering voices when they compete. They don’t have the benefit of daily recognition and encouragement during training that often comes for those athletes participating in certain higher profile sports. And no, they often don’t get to experience what it feels like to place first or second or even third in a race.  But I have to tip my hat to these athletes.  Whether it’s my son or daughter or yours, I applaud them. And I’m there at races yelling my head off for their success. To be honest, I’m often there with tears in my eyes as I contemplate their commitment and the sacrifices it took to get them to this point. 

I applaud the high school runner and the retiree runner who lives in my neighborhood.  I applaud the “jogging-stroller” runner who carves out time to run while raising a little one.  I applaud the middle-aged runner who needs a fresh start, a new goal, and is out there pounding the pavement.  These people have chosen over and over again amidst the myriad of choices we must make each day to accomplish something difficult. Very difficult.  To run.  And in the end, we should all be proud. Runners are a different breed, and so are the fans that support them. We cheer where there’s no scoreboard or bright lights.  Are you one of us?"

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