An Unconventional Community

When you hear the word community, what comes to mind? I think of a tight-knit group of individuals who share similar backgrounds and familial upbringings, who really feel that they know each other, who possess some sort of mutual understanding, and who provide sincere support. In this sense, it seems that a strong community must be inherently small and develop overtime. Contrast this with distance running. Marathoners are in the athletic pursuit of an individual goal and are often seen as selfish, as they devote so much of their time to training, potentially at the expense of other familial or social responsibilities. At face value, running a marathon appears incompatible with community- they are almost opposites. Every time I interact with other runners, however, I am reminded that running provides the most beautiful sense of community I ever encountered.

For more than a year, I had been planning on running the Chicago Marathon. Prior to my injury, I would visualize every aspect of the next Columbus Day weekend on a daily basis- eagerly picking up my bib at the expo, entering the starting corral shaking from both the frigid morning temperature and nervous excitement, running hard through my Windy City home, and wrapping myself in my well-deserved silver blanket. Not being able to make these visions a reality has, at times, left me as an emotional wreck, but my dad was still running the race, and I wanted to make the most out of the weekend. Therefore, while the rest of my family was still sleeping, I took the 6:00 AM train downtown to the Runner’s World shakeout run with Bart Yasso, Sara Hall, and Deena Kastor. Initially, I was concerned that showing up at a shakeout run for a race I wasn’t running would be quite awkward, but I could not have had a more uplifting experience.

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Deena Kastor

A hundred or so strangers gathered at sunrise to run along Chicago’s lakefront trail. While we didn’t know anything about one another before this morning, we were united by this common identity as runners. We shared the defining characteristics of self-discipline, intrinsic motivation, courage, and a zesty passion. We felt the same emotions of anxiety, enthusiasm, and joy surrounding our goal progression. While we came from different backgrounds, training for a formidable race joined us in a unique journey. Moreover, we each had a story, and sharing our stories resulted in powerful social support. We were not merely a group of selfish strangers – we were a strong community.

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Not only is the running community sincere, but it is the most welcoming community that I know. I felt more support from this community than I often do from my peers, along with a sense of empathy. All runners know how much not running sucks, and sharing experiences with individuals from all walks of life was quite fascinating.  While I was unable to participate in the shakeout run itself, I felt a greater sense of belonging just casually chatting with fellow runners than since I have run myself.

Perhaps my most profound realization of the weekend was the unique accessibility of the running community. There is little social hierarchy in this sport- elite runners are just ordinary people. Runner’s World Publisher Molly O’Keefe and Chief Running Officer Bart Yasso smiled to see the girl who got hit by the beer bottle (at least my story is memorable to my favorite journalists!) Two of America’s greatest distance runners of all time, Deena Kastor and Joan Benoit Samuelson, are my biggest inspirations. I emailed Deena prior to this weekend, she sent me a sincere response within a couple of days, and greeted me with a big hug and warm smile on Saturday. To me, this hug was the equivalent of a typical teenager getting a personalized greeting by Taylor Swift! We had a friendly conversation, and the next morning, 42-year-old Deena broke the U.S. women’s masters marathon record by nearly a minute- proving that excellence can come later in life and that several months without running does not mean an end to my participation in this sport.

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Bart Yasso

At the race expo, I approached Joan- who won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympic marathon, the first year in which women were allowed to compete- like a little kid in a candy store. We discussed the physical and mental difficulties of dealing with injury, and she stressed how young I was and how much potential the future held. Talking to her felt like talking to my mom- she was just so down to earth, caring, and kind. Joan emphasized the importance of listening to our bodies, and she could not have set a better example herself- she reluctantly sat out of this year’s Chicago marathon due to a stomach virus. As mentally tough as we might be, sometimes the body rules over the mind, and we just have to accept that and move forward.

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Joan Benoit Samuelson

Immersing myself in this running culture when I am physically unable to run is a blessing and a curse. It makes me more upset that I cannot do what I love, but hearing stories of others, ranging from novice runners to world record holders, reminds me that I am not alone and gives me hope for the future. When I can run, I will be more passionate and determined than ever before. For now, however, I will continue to connect with others in this special sphere, this sphere in which I have been fortunate to find a profound sense of community.

Believe: My Personal Faith

It has been one year since I last posted on this blog- one year since my empowering encounter with Jim, and two years since the beer bottle incident. My introspection has skyrocketed in the past year, but I have failed to craft my thoughts into words. In one of my courses this semester, Ethics: Human Goodness, we have been discussing the power of narrative and the importance of documenting our experiences. Ideas for blog posts pop into my mind quite frequently, and I am grateful for this class for finally re-catalyzing my commitment to sharing my adventures and expressing my feelings here. One post cannot make up for a year’s absence, and I promise that I will get back to my lighthearted stories soon. Today, however, I will focus on something deeper, the greatest lesson I’ve learned in the past several months- the power of believing.

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If you ask me to describe myself, my passion for running immediately comes to mind. My athletic identity is perpetually salient, as, to a large extent, I centralize my life around this sport and its culture. Aside from the physical activity of running, I begin each day by reading Runner’s World magazine, have a Twitter solely for the purpose of following elite runners, and schedule all of my holiday plans around races. When I think about the future, where I’ll be in five or ten years from now, I imagine traveling to different races, setting new goals, and surpassing them. I am a runner at heart- yet for the past several months, proximal hamstring tendinosis has kept me sidelined. I have felt an emotional overload like never before- anger from being entrapped in the dungeon of the gymnasium, confined to the elliptical rather than free to roam the forest preserves; anger at the time and money I have spent on failed treatments from orthopedics, physical therapists, massage therapists, and chiropractors. Sadness from missing out on an abundance of races, including next week’s Chicago Marathon, and simply of being unable to engage in my most beloved activity; sadness that causes me to cry myself to sleep more often than I’d like. Confusion as to why this is happening to me right now, when I was in such good shape and loving running more than ever before; confusion as to what I have done to deserve this and why all of my autoimmune conditions make healing so difficult for my body. My injury has made little improvement in several months, and I have not been able to run since February. But for some reason, perhaps irrational, I keep holding on to this little bit of hope, believing that things will get better.

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If you look around my apartment, it’s clear that “believe” is my favorite word- it’s plastered on my bulletin board, training journal, medal rack, and a canvas. This word has been special to me for a while, but in the past few months, it has become the mantra that I live by. I would be the last person expected to get a tattoo (can’t you just imagine me having an allergic reaction?!) yet connecting my mind and body through this word has definitely crossed my mind. Sometimes I wonder if I should just give up hope of getting better and returning to running- but I just can’t. I have a plethora of life goals, and running is what most excites me about the future. Running is engrained in my identity, and it is too important to simply discard. Based on experiences I’ve encountered and witnessed, I do not believe that everything happens for a reason. I am not a religiously devout individual, and I am not sure that I believe in god. Recently, however, I have coped with adversity by establishing my own faith- believing that things will get better. My personal spirituality is synonymous with “believe.” It has allowed me to make peace with my injured body, focus on circumstances that are in my control, and not let go of my dreams. Believe.

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No Risk No Reward + DIY Race Bib Book!

Nearly every Saturday morning this summer, I have dragged my mom along to accompany me on my long runs. Perhaps dragged is not the correct word- she admits to enjoying biking alongside me on the trails. However, every Friday night, she questions my motives- “Why do you have to run ten miles?” She has a point- I have no upcoming long races on the calendar, and my body could probably use some rest- but these longs runs are the highlight of my week. While they can be physically and mentally exhausting, they are what make me happiest.

Whether or not you’re a runner, I think it’s nearly impossible not to be fascinated by the runner’s mentality. We push our body through pain, as overcoming doubt and challenge makes us feel like we can conquer anything. With each tough run, we grow stronger, eventually reach our goals, and thus set new ones. As runners, we constantly push ourselves through suffering because we know it will ultimately make us better people. This summer, I’ve collected a variety of quotes about this phenomenon. Here are some of my favorites:

“People ask why I run. I say, ‘If you have to ask, you will never understand.’ It is something that only those select few know. Those who put themselves through pain, but know, deep down, how good if feels.” -Erin Leonard

“If you’re doing it right, at some point you will want to drop out of just about every race you run.” -Mark Remy

“Stepping outside the comfort zone is the price I pay to find out how good I can be. If I planned on backing off every time winning got difficult, I would hang up my shoes and take up knitting.” -Olympian Desiree Linden

“Happiness is pushing your limits and watching them back down” -New Balance Ad

So challenge brings us the greatest happiness- quite fascinating, in my opinion at least!

I had been searching for a creative way to display my race bibs for quite some time, so I decided to make them into a book. Like my medal rack, my race bib book is already giving me running motivation and exciting me for the future. This book was extremely simple to make and only cost a few dollars (not including hundreds of dollars in race fees!) All of the materials can be found at Target, and you can customize it however you like.

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All you need is a bright polypropylene folder, two loose-leaf rings, Sharpies, a hole puncher, and scissors. Cut the folder to a size that is a little larger than your largest bib (I cut mine to about 9 x 9.5″) and decorate however you would like. Line up your bibs in chronological order and place on rings. If you have bibs of different sizes, you may have to punch holes in the larger bibs. Simply punch corresponding holes in the folder, place on rings, and you’re done!

You may be thinking, “I don’t have any race bibs to place in this book.” Well, if you create this, think of all the motivation it will give you to race 🙂

Believe

This week, I finally got around to hanging up the medal rack that I purchased at last month’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon Chicago. It was a splurge, but I can already tell that it was well worth it. Every morning this week, I have woken up and immediately been reminded why I run. Each medal has a story, representing not just the physical race, but what was going on in my life at the time. But more inspiring than the medals themselves is the word they hang from- believe.

“Believe” is, in my opinion, the most powerful word, and I strive to think of this word in times of challenge- whether it’s ten miles into a half marathon, in the middle of a difficult chemistry exam, or even in certain social situations of doubt. In the absence of belief, where lies the mere possibility of success?

One of my favorite quotes, said by Thomas Jefferson, is “If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done before.” Believing in yourself is the first step.

Pick a word that energizes you and aligns with whatever your personal goals may be- whether they’re related to running, academics, or exercising vigilant care over a chronic disease. Perhaps your word may be “calm,” “preserve,” “strong,” “focus,” “forward,” “smile,” “patience,” “appreciate,” or anything that motivates you towards progress.

I haven’t had the best running week- I’ve gotten in my normal mileage, but I’ve felt quite exhausted and sluggish. However, every  time I see the word “believe” plastered on my wall, I know that I must get out the door and do my best. I urge you to choose a word and place it somewhere as a constant reminder. I hope you find as much encouragement as I have- comment below!