I’m a runner. More specifically, I am a marathoner. Like some marathoners, I look at my runs as where they fit in regards to a training plan. Is it a short run? A long run? A pace run? A speed run? A drill? In the three months leading up to a marathon my seriousness hits a high gear and I rarely miss a training run. In the off season, which happens to coincide with the wet, cold winter months, my runs become more sporadic. During these months they are usually to maintain a minimum level of strength as well as running for fun.
Running for fun… rare. I might start out with good intentions of taking it easy, enjoying the scenery, and just running for pure pleasure. But 1/4 mile in I’ve pushed the pace. I can rarely just run… unless I’m hurting a little… then I slow it down.
While running in Oregon, particularly around Eugene, one has the opportunity to run on the same trails as some world class elite runners. To anyone who’s logged some miles in some running shoes, these runners stand out like a beacon. Their form, ease of movement, attention to technique, are visible 200 meters away. While I huff and puff and strain to locate that balance between effort and grace in my muscles, trying to lower my average pace, one of these elite runners will pass me with all the ease of paper airplane gliding on the breeze, barely breathing at all. If I ever make eye contact with them I try to put up a stoic face, that I too am working on my form, experimenting in the laboratory of effort. Truth is, the equation of gravity, speed, breath, hear rate, incline, muscle tension, energy usage, stride length, pace, foot placement, are all closer to chaos. I will run for miles before entering into that blessed state of grace that non-runners call “the runners high” as though it were merely a release of endorphins. They have no idea. Mere endorphins do not bring grace… if it did, every zebra would know grace as it was eaten alive by lions. Marathon runners subject the zebras of their legs to the lions of pain on a regular basis to feel that pain. But to feel the grace, one must feel the beauty within it, the magic of a misty morning as the sun welcomes mile 11, or mile 17 on a full moon.
Often, as I run, I will cross someone who is new to running. One man was quite heavy, his body mass fighting him with every movement. Though it was cold, sweat plastered his hair to his head. His arms sagged, his posture was lousy and hunched, his legs were tired judging from their shuffling nature, his mouth open, gasping for breath, and his eyes told me that all he felt was pain. For a moment he looked up at me, as we runners often do in passing, and in his eyes I saw the same self-assessment he gave himself in comparison to me as I have done when meeting elite runners. I gave him the typical runner’s wave. I did not pity him, I did not look at him as a lesser runner, but instead greeted him as one of ‘us’, the tribe of runners. What is a runner? Someone who has run more than once. Anyone can run once, but only a runner will do it a gain. Whether that is every day, or once a week, depends on the person.
Let’s put it this way. Imagine someone who can barely play the guitar, yet they love learning on it, playing what they can, and they play for no other reason than fun. Is this person any less than the world-class guitar player who tours on concert? No. While there are some guitarists who, able to play amazingly well, view themselves as on a pedestal, the truth is they are no better as people than any other. Being an amateur guitarist myself, I’ve met some good guitarists who’ve been generous with their time and we’re ready to “jam along” with me.
No, this man is a runner. You know who you are out there. It is a cold, rainy day and you are running along a thankless stretch of highway, or you rise a little earlier in the morning to log a couple miles. You know why we don’t like to be called joggers. So to all my fellow runners out there, the paths are calling you to offer it your pain with an open heart. And if your sacrifice is worthy, you’ll find grace.