Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 30 Aug 2003 12:10:14 -0400

Average Joes

RUNNING COMMENTARY 481

(rerun from August 1996 RW)

I've spent much of my running life practicing abnormality. Early on I ran to be different, not just from people who didn't run but from other runners as well. I ran to be noticed. At my size I couldn't stand above the crowd, so I'd stand apart from it.

When other kids in high school played football and basketball, I ran. When they trained for track only in the proper season, I ran year-round. When other runners ran short, I went long. When they raced on the track, I took to the roads. When they ran five-mile races, I tried marathons. When they progressed to marathons, I moved to ultras. When their training was short and fast, mine was long and slow. When they started running long steadily, I began taking walking breaks.

For a long time I liked feeling abnormal. Only in my middle years did I recognize my "differences" were more imagined than real. I am -- and probably always have been -- unremarkably middle-of-the-road. I grew up in the middle of the country and in the middle of the century. I'm moderate in both my political views and personal habits. My income roots me firmly in the middle class.

As a runner I'm also middle-class. That is, I run more than needed just to stay fit but less than required to make any racing waves. My mileage would make an exerciser wince and a competitor laugh. After going to the extremes of short track races and then road ultras, I settled back to the middle distances. My favorite events now fall into the gap between 10K and marathon.

I started at the back of the pack, rose briefly to the top in small-time competition but soon eased back into my proper place. I'm much slower now, but so is the sport. I still finish almost precisely in the middle. My biggest race ever was a New York City Marathon in which 29,000 of us finished. My place: 14,500th.

So I'm truly Joe Average. Come to think of it, that isn't a bad way to be. The average runner is still an exceptional human being, at least in terms of our ability to move far and fast on foot. We might only make the 50th percentile among runners but rank in the 99th among all people. We don't need to run very far or fast to stand out from that crowd. Being abnormal by its standards is enough of a distinction without also trying to separate ourselves from other runners.

Scanning my best memories as a runner, I find few that were solo. The standouts: team training and relay racing as a kid, and long group runs and group travel to races as an adult. All involved running with others, not against or away from them.

No less an observer than George Sheehan, once a self-described loner, wrote in his late years, "Where there were once too many people in my life, now there are too few." He joined a running group. "Now I look forward to running with people," he noted in his last book, Going the Distance. "I need people to talk to, I need people to listen to, I need people to be with." Running became George's team sport. "I now have comrades," he said. "I am a member of a gang."

Somewhere in my middle years, maybe while working on the Sheehan biography Did I Win?, I realized that being a loner was lonely. I needed to run more with people most like myself, to quit flaunting my few differences from them and to start sharing the many likenesses of our gang.


UPDATE. Another seven years along, I still run alone (not counting dogs) 99 times in every 100. But I now spend the most time with other runners in decades. The runners I talk to and listen to most often are the young students in my running classes. This "gang" meets four days a week, year-round.

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