Whenever I run, this thought involuntarily comes to me: “I’m going to do this for as long as I can.” And “long” doesn’t mean the next 60 minutes. It means the next 60 years.
It’s weird, because I hated running in high school. Being ordered to lap four times around the track under a blazing San Fernando Valley sun felt so tedious. I’d been a gymnast, so running seemed pointlessly one-dimensional in comparison.
But that changed in my early thirties, when I moved to San Francisco, where I barely knew anyone. I had made the mistake before of moving somewhere new and failing to find a community. It had cost me joy, and I didn’t want to repeat that same error. So once we settled into our new apartment, I started looking into clubs to join. What with my career and all the other time-gobbling demands of an adult life, I was searching for something multipurpose.
Team in Training looked ideal: a fun, active group of new people to befriend while exercising and doing charity work. It seemed efficient—and it worked. Three years, four races, and five smelly pairs of shoes later, most of my San Francisco best friends are fellow TNTers. I’m fitter than before, and I raised $3,000 to fight cancer.
Running is no longer tedious. It’s now forever associated with blossoming friendships, unconditional encouragement, and physical accomplishments I didn’t know were within me. At first, I could barely run five miles. Buoyed by tireless coaches and new friends, I kept finding myself able to push a little farther. The first time I crossed a finish line, I cried. I cried into the embraces of people who love me enough to travel hundreds of miles simply to stand there cheering me on in the rain.
What I didn’t know in high school is that running isn’t just about running. It’s about community. It generates a collective energy. It builds up your will to prove to yourself that you actually can do something you thought you couldn’t. Others tell you you can do it, and you actually, slowly start to believe them. I have never felt such a concentration of positive intention directed toward me as when I’ve run endurance races. Even complete strangers shout about how much they want to see you succeed.
That I’m slow doesn’t matter. I usually come in around 5,000th. So what? I’m not there to take first. I still feel like I won. Yes, I proved that I could put one leg in front of the other for two dozen miles. But my feeling of being a winner comes from the fact that for months, I trained with people who talked to me of both profound love and loss while we logged the miles together. Because friends and family—and sometimes people I never expected—stepped up to donate thousands of dollars to support our cause. Most of all, I knew I’d won because I found the community I was looking for. That was, and still is, my cherished prize. I haven’t trained for a marathon in a while, but over the past few months, I’ve danced at teammates’ weddings, met up for what one of them calls “epic dinner conversations,” and generally felt more a part of other people’s lives.
Yesterday, after the Boston explosions, it occurred to me that my running community—every running community—is a microcosm of America. My team had people with ancestry from all over the world: Egypt, China, Brazil, all united under a banner of sportsmanship. The basic assumption was that we could all accomplish what we had come here to accomplish. To question whether someone would actually be able to get to the finish line is blasphemy. The thought just never occurs.
What could be more American? There’s the belief in our collective and individual abilities, the importance of setting far-off goals and then achieving them, and the ardent cheering on of others who have set off down the road alongside us. Technically, yeah, it’s a race. But the competition is just a framework to help everyone get where they’re going. The camaraderie is always far more palpable than any rivalry. And when something goes wrong—when senseless injury befalls—you can bet that a crowd of earnest helpers will immediately surround all who need help.
There are elite runners who, after yesterday’s evil, won’t be able to run again. There are people who were in Boston solely to cheer on a loved one. They cared enough to be there at their runner’s finish line, and because of that, they lost their life, or a limb. Our nation will always hold these people close at heart.
I know I may not be able to run for the next 60 years. But I’m sure going to try. And when I can’t anymore, I’m still going to cheer. I’m still going to give any passing runner, especially if I see a grimace of determination on their face, that subtle nod of respect and encouragement. Because we’ve all got a long road ahead. And life is going to trip us up, make us fall. Injure us. But we are Americans. We are a people who not only cheer each other on but also help each other back up.