On Gratitude for Running and Community in 2021

May 19, 2021

Gazing through the cracked glass of my Jeep Wrangler’s windshield on a lonely, winding stretch of Interstate 26 north of Asheville, I began performing two sets of mental gymnastics.  First, I told myself if I perfectly timed my next fill up my trip would only take one more tank of gas.  Second, I calculated that a quick stop in Johnson City for a short jog  on the soft surface of the Tweetsie Trail would leave me about six more hours of travel.  As the road ascended higher into the mountains the background murmur of football on AM radio faded into a crackling cacophony.  The precipitous ridge on my left drew my attention.  Although I had hoped for more vibrant fall colors, only the muted first brush strokes of autumn appeared on the Blue Ridge landscape.  I was two-thirds of the way through a whirlwind fifteen-hour-round-trip drive to pace friends in their Spinx Virtual Marathon attempt.  And despite my tired legs and restless mind, I quickly realized their was no better way I could have spent that October weekend.\

Running anchors my most meaningful and lasting relationships.  Sure, the close friends who I toiled with during grueling, humid workouts and celebrated with at finish lines hold a special place in my heart.  However, running has given me far more: the athletes I coached through their first marathons, the customers I helped dial in a nutrition plan for long runs, and the countless connections at race expos, track meets, or simply at a water fountain along the Swamp Rabbit Trail.  Those links have blossomed into friendships.  We have invited one another into our homes.  I’m certain you have similar experiences.  Running community evolves into extended family.

For the second half of 2020 I have split time between the North and South.  Work, friends, and, yes, running have kept me rooted in Greenville.  But the draw of ailing family has me undertaking the delicate dance of sowing a rich commitment to two different locations.  In many ways this opportunity is a blessing.  Multiple jobs and long commutes sound like a curse.  Yet I have the unique chance and freedom to travel back and forth between places I love.  If only we all could be so lucky.  It comes as no surprise that the group of friends I have developed in my new community are the men I spend my mornings, or evenings, or some days both, with running.  We jog along telling stories or simply listening to the memorable pitter patter of group cadence in lockstep.

2020 challenged us as runners and members of the Upstate community.  The past year erased our illusions of freedom and simplicity in running.  Suddenly, group long runs and team track workouts became incubators for an invisible illness.  We stayed in, doing yoga videos on YouTube and pull-ups in the door frame, or we ran solo — alone in our thoughts, worrying about our businesses, schools, and families.  Spring races canceled.  Then summer races.  Then fall.  

But missed races and disjointed training calendars weren’t our greatest challenges as runners in 2020.  We felt the strain of community lost.  Those of us fortunate enough to stay healthy often sacrificed our beloved ritual of meeting with friends and sharing miles.  Meanwhile, many of us became more acutely aware of a harsh reality: some of our friends and fellow runners feel uncomfortable and even unsafe hitting the pavement or trail alone simply because of the pigment of their skin.

Running in community provides one of the purest expressions of our Creator’s intent.  Our bodies in motion, feeling the oxygen and blood pumping in pursuit of greater fitness, exploring the beauty of nature and our neighborhoods, sharing life.  And it serves as a conduit for finding common ground and building deep, intentional relationships.  In a world divided by our politics and a pandemic why not rededicate ourselves to running with an attitude of gratitude?  Let’s savor every stride alongside one another.  Never miss the chance to spend hard miles having hard conversations.  Be there as your training partner experiences life’s triumphs and encourage him or her through life’s inevitable trials.  Say an uplifting word to the people you pass on the road.  And when your body aches from the pounding of countless foot strikes stay thankful for the opportunity to test your mental and physical limits.  

As the calendar turns to a new year, I reflect on crossing our artificial Spinx Marathon finish line along the Reedy River.  Smiles and inspiration abounded on that crisp, perfect morning for racing.  The absence of fans and finisher’s medals didn’t matter.  Facing all the obstacles of 2020, goals still were reached and bonds strengthened. When our small group dispersed I trotted away for a brief cool down with unbounded optimism.  We’ll run through 2021 together — even when we are apart — grateful for everything this sport and the wonderful people who share in it mean to us.

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