Why Runners Get Along

Runners understand each other. We need that because understanding is something runners get a whole lot of from the general public. Most people view running with vague discomfort. But one runner plus another equals good vibes. There’s something about that shared community, that deep mutual passion for singular experiences only runners really understand.

When I’m driving and see a runner slogging their way along the side of the street, my heart really goes out to them. I respect them and their effort, mentally encourage them, and maybe feel a pang of jealousy that I’m not doing something as fun as that at the moment. When I’m in public places, I identify other people who are probably runners. Slim build, moisture-wicking clothing, alert posture, Nike footwear — the likelihood is high. Then I want to meet those people. We’d probably get along. They’re probably really cool people — after all, they run. When I’m out running and pass another runner on the trail, I see their brow shiny with sweat, their lips set in breathless defiance, their form too rigid or else going to pieces, and I look them in the eye. They do the same. We nod, and nothing more needs to be said. I understand so intimately the struggle they are going through, and applaud them for deciding that it is, in fact, worth it.

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Only runners really understand the joy in the small things, waking up early and lacing up shoes to hit the trails, exploring a new route or pounding down a familiar one, wiping the sweat from your face as it stings in your eye. Only runners understand the wild places the mind goes to when fatigue sets in, the bizarre cognition of the brain after six miles. Only runners understand the small battles of willpower that occur within a mile, a minute, a block, the triumph of not checking your watch or making those twenty extra yards to the furthest sign post. Try to find a runner who’s not cheerful. There’s not a lot of them out there. In my experience, people who love running love life. It is for these reasons that runners form such an offbeat, tight-knit, wonderful community out of their shared passion.

Happy trails

I’ve focused a lot on extraneous aspects of running (like running gear), but one of my favorite things about running is actually hitting the trails. First of all, jogging around a track can’t compare to running through a forest or up a mountain or whatever. You really get to know the trails, the twist and the turns, the dynamic scenery, and the familiar routes. The team spends a lot of time running through the networks of hiking trails crisscrossing the mountain behind the school. The forest is a really cool place to run in any season; in the winter when it’s quiet and frosty and the trail crunches beneath your feet or in the spring when it’s lush and alive and you have to dodge overgrown thorn branches hugging the path. I spent several weeks at a summer camp where I rose shortly after the sun every morning to run off the beaten path; along old access roads, behind the horse pasture, past these really cool wetlands  tucked in the woods, and so on.

More formal paved running/biking trails are great for long runs or tempo runs or other similarly controlled workouts. On these you run across (no pun intended) a lot of people who know exactly what you’re doing — just how many bikers and runners exist in the world is almost startling if you ever take the time to notice them. There’s a really great moment of mutual respect and understanding and sympathy anytime two runners approach each other running in opposite directions, make eye contact, and nod.

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Running addict

Running is surprisingly addictive. You wouldn’t suspect it at first. After all, plenty of people find running repellent. Most people have relatively tepid emotional reactions to running. There are certainly aspects of running that could be called unpleasant. The physical stress, the discipline training requires, the bizarre fashion are all aspects of running some may find distasteful.

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But any habit is hard to break. There are many people who come to enjoy running. Indeed, the joys of running and the endorphin rush are cherished by avid runners. Running is an accepted and even anticipated part of the daily routine, as natural and indispensable as eating lunch. Runners get to a point where nothing feels right without a run. It’s your daily exercise. It clears your mind, energizes your spirit, maintains your fitness, gives you an edge for the rest of the day.

It’s even possible to experience running withdrawal. You should be able to make it through a day without running. You might feel a little restless or jumpy by the end of the day, especially if you hadn’t planned for a rest day. But a day or two off doesn’t kill. But after three, four, five days without running (usually because of some injury or unavoidable obligation) you begin to feel the symptoms. Nothing is right. You’re not quite yourself. Your mind isn’t as sharp, your body is too sluggish, your tolerance for stress is low. Often crosstraining is the only available form of therapy.

Hot and cold

The change in seasons bring various occupational hazards for runners. In the summer, everyone is quick to complain that it is simply too hot to run. This is not far from the truth. Stepping outdoors means instant dehydration, profuse sweat, and probably sunburn. RUNNING in these conditions is an extension of these adversities, and it is not long before runners are sapped of all energy.

By the time December rolls around, runners face the opposite problem. When the trail is icy enough to crunch underfoot and your breath crystallizes in small clouds, it takes an extra degree of effort to force yourself through a run. Longsleeves, running jackets, wool hats, running pants, and gloves are an understood necessity to abate hypothermia. Even then I usually lose the feeling in my fingers by the time I’m through five miles.

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Spring brings no relief. While temperatures tend to be moderate, spring also functions as the miniature monsoon season of the Pacific Northwest. Nothing’s better than fighting through sheets of rain so thick you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you, feeling your shirt soaked and your shoes waterlogged, watching the distinction between puddle, running trail, and small stream blur with alarming fluidity.

Autumn makes an attempt at compromise, but climate patterns can be somewhat erratic and runners often face the worst of all worlds.

The ideal climate for running is generally understood to be in the high sixties with a potential light rain. This is a narrow window to achieve, and hardly ever coincides with a race.

Only a runner

Runners revel in idiosyncrasies.

It’s not just me. I know this because I recently typed the words “you know you’re a runner when” into google, just for kicks. I was rewarded with pages of articles, posters, and bullet points, clearly made by runners, laughing at and unapologetically glorifying the various quirks of a runners’ life. One of the easiest eccentricities to target is the fashion. Runners own a shameless amount of neon, which (given that camouflage is a decided detriment in nocturnal roadside runs) is understandable, but they also like owning neon, which is not. Runners also go through more shoes than most non-runners would understand. This usually results in a house full of recycled running shoes — a runner might have a fresh pair of running shoes for running, a battered pair of running shoes for everyday use, an outdated pair of shoes for rec sports, and so on.

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Then, of course, there’s the strange fact that runners actually like running, That shouldn’t come as a surprise, but most runners come to embrace aspects of the sport that normal people typically find repulsive, like snot rocketing. Where most people see physical pain and/or nausea, runners see an adrenaline rush and a confirmation of being alive.

There’s also the thing with food. Runners are usually compelled to eat healthy. They get to a point where they actually prefer vegetables over donuts.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the running community is that everyone likes each other. There’s a beautiful moment of mutual respect and sympathy when two runners pass each other going opposite directions on a trail, make eye contact, and briefly nod. You’d be hard-pressed to find a stronger kinship.

Being a Good ‘Sport’

One of the stranger aspects about the personality of a runner is the irresistible tendency to drift towards other sports. “Sports” may be too glamorous of a word — it’s not very often that you find a cross country-baseball crossover athlete, or a distance runner deeply invested in lacrosse. Regulated, “normal” sports don’t see a whole lot of action from distance runners (with the notable exception of club soccer).

I mean the sort of athletic endeavor that requires exactly one piece of equipment, that you can make a pickup game out of on a momentary impulse. It can be hacky sack, spike ball, Frisbee, anything of that variety — runners aren’t picky. Somebody pulls out the ball or whatever and everybody congregates in formation. Skill levels range from competent to abysmal, but enthusiasm is what really counts in these cases, and that’s at an all-time high. There’s usually one or two people who are actually really amazing at the sport in question, but they’re pretty good sports putting up with the rest of the pack, pardon the pun.

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It’s probably because runners aren’t good at sitting still. There’s plenty of transition time hanging out before practices, waiting for friends to show up for training runs, that sort of thing. Few self-respecting runners are going to sit by idly as the minutes tick by. But if somebody brought a hacky sack, well, you’ve got yourself a party. There is some speculation that our cross country team was really just a competitive hacky sack league, with runs afterwards.

socks

The most unexpected hardship I’ve faced as a runner is that of ruining socks. I’ve never 100% grasped the importance of “running socks” as opposed to pitiful, everyday socks, but running experts much more knowledgeable than I swear by them. Be it the tight fit, superior material, sleek design, or fashionable flair, something about running socks makes them valuable artifacts.

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Unfortunately, socks are often the first casualty of a hard run. This isn’t always the case, of course. Very often you can go for a wonderful run in beautiful weather and finish with every artifact of clothing unblemished. But sometimes things take a turn for the worse. Heavy rains can turn a well-maintained hiking trail into a muddy minefield. On particularly bad days, mud splatters absolutely everywhere, but most everything is washable enough. The socks, however, are a lost cause. Arguably the most fragile article in a runners’ wardrobe, the socks suffer the added disadvantage of being closest to the ground. The shoes will dry, the clothes can be washed, but the socks are unrecognizable. A good hard run can turn even a blindingly white pair of running socks into limp shreds of fabric resolutely displaying a uniform shade of brown.

You can try to save them. Soaking the socks for hours, drowning them in bleach, washing and rewashing, may yield some results. But I have never succeeded in reviving a pair of socks to their former glory. Heartbreaking though the loss may be, it’s usually not worth the effort it takes to work socks back into a reusable state.

DNF

The word frustrating doesn’t do justice to long-term injury. I’ve been grappling to find the language to adequately articulate my feelings about not being able to run in any meaningful capacity for several months. It’s a sort of gut-wrenching frustration, bitter disappointment, sporadic rage, and worst of all, an insidious, defeating sense of waxing hopelessness. I’m upset, angry, desperate, confused, frustrated, disoriented, and lost. I’ve been fighting and straining against the chains of injury only to drive the shackles deeper into my skin. I’ve abused my injuries with physical therapy, fought, willed my reality to change. My patience, never my strong suit, wore thin and disappeared altogether, and it hasn’t mattered. Recovery plods forward at its own inconvenient, maddeningly unhurried pace.

And yet, though frightening and at at times potent, hopelessness is relatively easily dispelled. Small victories of progress I never would think ordinarily to appreciate have become much more significant to me. Any extra distance, minute on a treadmill, mere existence with the absence of pain, is in a small way a reassurance or even something to take pleasure in. Months of injury is not what I hoped my senior year of running would look like. But I still have much by which I can call myself fortunate. The disappointment of the running I’ve lost is real and still aches. But I have a brighter future to look forward to. Progress is slow but extant, and with any luck I can live out the promise of running as a lifelong sport.

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Time for a trial

Coaches love to drop a surprise time trial bombshell on unsuspecting athletes. It’s the same story every year. It’s the first few weeks of the season. Unsuspecting athletes show up at practice, unaware that this is anything other than an ordinary day. For distance runners, the cycle of hard workouts and easy recovery days follows a predictable pattern, so a few bright veterans note that today is, in fact, a likely candidate for an unadvertised time trial. A storm warning, but not a guarantee. Code yellow. It’s impossible to know for sure until the coach announces the game plan to the expectant crowd of athletes. “Today,” he begins, relishing the moment of expectant silence, “we have something special in store for you.” A terrified chorus of squeals and groans ripple throughout the room. Nearly everyone has a pretty good idea what that means, but the last shreds of dubious hope don’t disappear completely until the coach confirms, “It’s time trial day.” The mood in the gym darkens several degrees. Squirmy enthusiasm gives way to the staticky jangle of nervous energy wrestling with mute dread.

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Why do time trials pose such an intimidating threat?  Deep down, I think most athletes have a hate-to-love love-to-hate relationship with time trials. Any competition sends fight-or-flight adrenaline coursing through your blood, but with a scheduled meet you have time to compose yourself and mitigatethe nerves ahead of time. A time trial is only anticipated with vague suspicion, which if anything makes the nervousness even more potent. Little is at stake — this might be how you’re ranked on the team for the next couple of weeks, nothing more — but at the same time, (as with any race) everything is on the line. Every race is a challenge and a test of how far you’re willing to push yourself and at what point, if ever, you’ll back down. I think anticipating the imminent taxing willpower, fresh out of a leisurely offseason, is the source of real time trial dread.

The Trouble with Track Forms

I love track, but navigating the bureaucracy to get in sometimes bothers me. First, you have to go and print off approximately eight million forms and supply your name, grade, age, address, phone number, the sport you’re signing up for, school, city, and zip code on each one. Those last three especially bother me because the information for all three can be inferred from the simple fact that the name of the school has the name of the city in it, so my city and zip code are sort of implied. The forms also supply a generous list of every possible injury a person could sustain by participating in track, or really doing anything ever, because ninety percent of the risk for these injuries stems from the possibility of falling down.  You have to agree about seventy times that you fully understand the consequences.  I understand that the school has to cover their bases and everything, but I wish we could just sign once that we promise not to sue and be done with it.

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The forms are due the Friday before sports begin. Given the miraculous foresight and planning tendencies of us high school students, this means that the lines for the secretary office are nonexistent on Monday, negligible on Tuesday, mild on Wednesday, bothersome on Thursday, and catastrophic on Friday. Should the unthinkable occur and you end up turning your forms in LATE, the forms often have to sit in the office for a day or so and ripen before you can actually turn out.

 

The Hardest Part Is Getting Started

There is something both thrilling and impossibly nerve-wracking about standing behind a starting line. It’s a process that only takes a few minutes. Your warmup schedule has prepared you to make your way to the starting tent with comfortable time to spare. More organized schools will have designated, alternating lanes to organize runners based on the schools from which they hail. If they’re really fancy they’ll have a nice waterfall start. More commonly, meet organizers will forgo the bureaucracy and simply let runners sort themselves out on the line.  No matter the method, the result is the same. Everyone knows their speed relative to their teammates. Some things don’t need to be argued. The more competitive runners gather closest to the front.

This is when I can freak myself out, and potentially ruin a race. In that moment, whatever mindset I’m in, whatever physical sensations I’m feeling, is what I’ll carry into the extremely imminent race. Soreness, ambition, confidence, doubt, needing to go the bathroom, whatever. All that should have been sorted out beforehand. Now I’m about throw myself as I am into a process that, if I do it right, should be painful. If I do it really right, I should push myself through more physical pain than I’ve successfully done in the past. If I back off, I can make it through the race fine, but only the crushing disappointment of a half-hearted effort will await me at the finish. That, I know from experience, is almost always my least desirable option.

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Anyway, thinking about all can psych me out, and that takes the edge off the nerve I’ll need to sustain my willpower for the next several minutes. So when I can, I change my focus. Fear of failure is never as strong a motivator as hope for success. I envision a successful race, capturing my mental state at each successive stage of the effort. Calm myself. View the upcoming race not with apprehension, but eagerness. A satisfying, exhilarating challenge I can embrace. When I can pull that off, that infinite second of time before the starter pulls the trigger — and, generally, the race itself — sis a heck of a lot more bearable.

Resisting a lie

For the first bit of a race, assuming you have your nerves under control, you feel invincible. You could conquer the world, or at least conquer this race, either goal being more or less equivalent in your narrowed focus for the next several minutes. But seriously, there’s sometimes this ludicrous feeling of being able to run forever without tiring, and you don’t understand why you thought this was hard all this time.

Reality, however, is a steady pacer, and soon catches up. Physical fatigue seeps inexorably into your body. Months of physical training have hopefully taken a significant edge off that fatigue, but dealing with what remains requires a mental game. Your legs grow painful, then lethargic. Your lungs seem to be cutting in to the inside of your body. Maintaining your form, previously an unconscious endeavor, becomes arduous. After the first two-thirds of a race my stomach is usually considering vomiting. That’s when the delicious temptation of settling into an easy pace makes its move.

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It’s been said before that a half-truth is the most dangerous kind of lie. It’s dangerously deceptive because truthful enough to be convincing but untrue enough to remain deleterious. I think that applies here. If I’m running at a certain threshold of physical stress, I can believe that I’m unable to run any faster. It’s easy to believe because, truthfully, I am in quite a bit of pain, and increasing that pain doesn’t feel like a good idea. But it’s false, because I’ve run races at that level of effort before. I’m at a high level of physical stress, but it’s a familiar level. I can get away with playing it safe.

Resisting that sensation is difficult and important. When I’m able to break free of that, I find that I can push myself harder, even to just an infinitesimal degree, and survive. And as a long as you’re running smart, when that happens, that’s a victory.

:-/

As I’ve said a few times before, I derive a great deal of satisfaction from a good hard run. Some people don’t understand this. They have trouble getting past the fact that running too long, quite simply, hurts. To be honest, that’s half of the reason I go for a run in the first place. Enduring a certain degree physical stress is a gratifying challenge and encouraging reward. Running, in that sense, offers a healthy thrill. It’s hard not to feel alive when you’re running.

On top of that, running offers a great emotional release. A run is a chance to take your mind off of whatever’s at hand and focus on the immediate task before you for six or seven miles. Physical exercise is a great effective way to release stress. Running has introduced (initiated?) me to a fantastic community of geeky athletes with a wacky sense of humor I absolutely love. It’s a great medium and motivation to get and/or stay fit. It offers a healthy, grounded passion. I sometimes feel I can’t live without it.

The trouble is, sometimes I have to. The problem with exercise is that it’s hard on the body, and unless you take very good care of yourself (stretching, eating, hydrating, etc.), there’s a good chance you’ll end up injured, and then you’re out of commission as you heal up. Due to issues in about every leg/hip/ankle/knee muscle I have, haven’t had a good long run in about a month and I’m going stir crazy. I feel restless and anxious, and my normal method of letting off steam (i.e. running) is blocked off.

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Being deprived of their sport is a tough break for athletes, and I’m fortunate to only be as incapacitated as I am. It’s perhaps a healthy but painful reminder to derive satisfaction and a sense of identity apart from the sport you love.

Watch Tan

As a runner I faithfully keep a watch with a good stopwatch function on hand. (Pardon the pun :D). The habit developed young, initially out of the very pragmatic, non-running-related desire to always know what time it is. When I found myself on the high school cross country team freshman year, I was surprised to hear the coaches constantly reminding the team the vast and inexpressible indispensability of owning a watch. Well, great. I have one here. I clicked it over to stopwatch mode.

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I then began to realize the importance of a watch as a tool for a runner. 30 second physical therapy stretches. Interval workouts at 800 pace. Averaging the speed of a 5 mile run. Having a stopwatch at your fingertips facilitates a multitude of running activities. More and more I appreciated my reliable friend the Timex.  Ironman Triathlon. Adjustable Velcro, durable build, seconds timer to two decimal places. Not strictly waterproof, but close enough. My watch now only leaves my wrist for showers.

On the rare occasions I’m not wearing a watch, I habitually check my wrist. There’s nothing there, of course, save the fairly impressive watch tan I’ve developed over the years. Furthermore, whenever I glance down at my watch, I can’t immediately tell what time it is because it’s perpetually on stopwatch mode. In a pinch it even works well as an alarm clock. The one flaw I can name is that I can’t figure out how to keep the date right. Right now, for example, my watch dutifully reports that it is Thursday, June 19th, which is actually slightly more accurate than usual.