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.

An Empowering Encounter

I have been pretty terrible about updating my blog lately. Since I’ve been back at Emory, I’ve only posted once. Thoughts of new posts constantly come to mind, yet with classes, research, volunteering, extracurricular activities, and of course, running, I just haven’t found the time to write. This weekend, however, was very special- in the midst of stressful schoolwork and homesickness, I had a chance encounter that completely restored my faith in humanity.

It began Friday afternoon when, after picking up my race bib and t-shirt for Saturday’s Winship Win the Fight 5k, I was walking to a lab meeting. Suddenly, an older man approached me and asked about my ankle. I was quite surprised, but he seemed friendly, so I briefly explained the beer bottle incident, which coincidentally happened exactly one year ago (the Friday afternoon before the Winship 5k, which I had been planning on running!) Surprisingly, the man seemed relieved. We continued talking, and it turned out that Jim is a melanoma survivor. His calf was affected by cancer, and the sight of my ankle had worried him. I asked him if he was running the race, which he was, and we began discussing our favorite races and times. As we parted ways, we wished each other luck, and he told me that he hoped to see me on the podium tomorrow. That would have been enough. Sad as it is to say, it’s not everyday that a random stranger strikes up a conversation with you. I thought about Jim for the rest of the day and what a special encounter it had been.

Come race morning, I was warming up with tears in my eyes. I could hear the Winship Cancer Institute speakers, which made me think about my cousin Jimmy, a pediatric oncologist, who passed away a few years ago. I hadn’t realized what an emotional event this race would be, and as I finished my warm up, I heard, “let’s hope there’s no beer bottles on the course this early in the morning.” I turned around, and there was Jim! We entered the start corral together and discussed our families and backgrounds while waiting for the gun to fire. This was the first race I’ve run without knowing anyone- in fact, I’d never run a race without my mom or dad on the course or in the crowds. While the race was held on Emory’s campus and had around 3,000 runners, walkers, and joggers, I did not see any fellow students! It wasn’t really the type of event one typically attends alone- there were teams with hundreds of people in matching t-shirts, groups of cancer survivors, and families running in honor of loved ones. But I did not feel alone at all- I had made a lovely acquaintance, and I was running for a compelling cause.

It was a challenging course (the name of the area, Druid Hills, gives it away) but my endorphins were in full gear. I was the third female to cross the finish line, but rather than analyzing my splits and cooling down, I just wanted to see Jim finish- and he did, in under 26 minutes, and was handed a white flower, indicating he was a cancer survivor. And Jim was right- we did see each other on the podium! We both placed in our age group, and he was elated that both he and “his adopted daughter for the day” had medaled.

I had been on cloud nine the whole day after my encounter with Jim when I received an email from him. Without knowing anything about me but my first name and that I was an Emory student, Jim had found my blog. He deeply touched my life, and it seems I made an impact on him as well. I don’t know what else to say about this weekend. Jim has the spirit of runner- a fighter, an unstoppable machine, a pure human being. We were brought together by chance, and I hope to see him at next year’s race. Jim made me appreciate running, living, and human goodness more than ever before. Miracle moments like these are few and far between, but they truly are empowering.

Jim