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

Thu, 27 Jun 2013 04:54:12 -0400

Home Work

RUNNING COMMENTARY 995

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the March 2009 issue.)

It took me a long time to find a home in my hometown. I only finally found it because a few people here asked me to help them.

Mine isn’t just any town. It’s Eugene, Oregon, which rightly calls itself “Track Town USA.” Some here would also have you believe that Eugene is the running capital of the known universe. By one measure, number of runners per capita, they might be right.

But for me, for too long, Eugene could have been just about anywhere that offered an airport to leave from when speaking to groups of runners I would seldom see again. Eugene also offered a hideout to come back to and write for readers who were largely invisible. I took almost no part in the vibrant running community here.

I ran alone and never raced here. I joined no running club and volunteered at no local race. In a town with so many runners, it was easy to hide in plain sight. Too easy.

Only rarely would I talk with runners here. If they knew my name from some article or book, they would ask, “Are you visiting here to work on a story or to cover a race?” I’d laugh and say, “No, I’ve lived here since 1981.”

Living this way let me get lots of work done. But it also left a void, which became most apparent as I watched Eugene’s biggest race one July 4th. Illness had kept me from making an annual appearance at a race in Iowa that year. Now, as the thousands of Eugene runners paraded past, I recognized hardly any of them.

After commenting on this to my wife Barbara, she said, “You need to get out more often.” She didn’t mean out of town, but out IN town, mixing with the locals. Her nudge led to a satisfying series of events that caused a steep decline in travel and a corresponding increase in non-writing work in my hometown.

I initiated none of these events. They resulted from the right person here in town asking the right question at the right time.

A graduate student was scheduled to teach a running class at the University of Oregon, but she had to pull out. When that slot needed filling quickly, my name came up.

“Let me think about it for a day and then get back to you,” I told Becky Sisley, the teacher doing the hiring. I was torn between a chance to teach and concern about how this extra duty might affect the writing and speaking.

Barbara often knows my real wishes better than I do. She said, “You’d be making a big mistake if you didn’t take this.”

I took the assignment. This became my first real opening, ever, to think locally and act locally. From the start, I loved it. I love it even more now because there’s more to love. I teach these classes year-round, as many as three per term.

Since 2005 I’ve also coached marathon training teams. This happened again because someone, Bob Coll from the Eugene Running Company, asked me to at the moment when I was ready to accept.

Finally I know Eugeneans and am known as one myself. This was never so obvious as July 4th, 2008. I knew too many of the runners in that day’s big race to find all their faces and shout all their names.

Finally I’ve come home to my hometown. I still write and travel from here, but far less than before and only if those jobs don’t interfere with my main one now. That’s the teaching-coaching.

Only once in the last half of 2008 did I leave Eugene to speak, and even then ventured no farther than 100 miles to Portland (and then only because the marathon team ran there that weekend). The subject at a race directors’ conference was volunteering.

I confessed to doing too little of that. Guiding training groups doesn’t count as volunteerism because cash changes hands, if only in modest sums. Volunteers work for the purest of reasons, because a job needs to be done and is worth doing for free.

In 2008, I finally volunteered locally – at our town’s two biggest events, the Eugene Marathon and the 2008 Olympic Trials for track and field. Unpaid help was abundant at both, and you might think: who wouldn’t want to help here, where runners and track fans abound?

Yes, Eugene has that tradition. But little more than three years ago the new marathon in the Running Capital and the return of the Trials to Track Town existed only as dreams of a few big-thinkers here.

Eugene needed what all cities need when launching an event: organizers willing to take chances, sponsors to fund that risk-taking, and volunteers to bring the dreams and plans to life. Leaders and spenders establish races. But no event could leave the starting line without volunteers.

Organizers in Eugene trusted that the essential battalions of unpaid helpers would follow, and they did. I joined them because two people asked, “Can you help?”

Janet Heinonen, editor of the Trials souvenir program, brought me onto her publishing team. Richard Maher, director of the marathon, solicited my help with the speakers’ program.

You’d think anyone would want to help with the Trials if it meant seeing the best track meet ever held in this country, without paying for tickets. In fact, very few of the volunteers were promised a job inside Hayward Field, and most of the help caught few if any glimpses the track action. Yet the volunteer corps reached its quota 2500 a month before the Trials. The organizing committee disappointed hundreds more left standing in line.

In the massive scale of the Trials, my contribution was minuscule. I wrote several short, unbylined articles – for free because everyone else donated their services. Kenny Moore, the sport’s best-known (and probably best-paid) writer contributed his lead article at no charge because volunteerism was the spirit of this event.

The same spirit moved the 2008 Eugene Marathon. As a two-time Olympian, Dathan Ritzenhein can command a hefty fee for any appearance, and can afford to turn down any that doesn’t pay enough. But as a Eugenean he agreed to speak fee-free at the expo, then doubled the next morning by firing the starting gun.

Speaking as a late-arriving volunteer, my message to the race directors I spoke to in Portland was: don’t be too shy or proud to ask that most flattering of questions: “Can you help me?” People love be asked, love to feel needed, love the feeling afterward that they gained more than they gave.

Now, finally, I know this feeling. My message today to you runners is: hold up your volunteering hand even before being asked. Don’t miss your chance, as I did for too long, to help out in your own hometown.

UPDATE: The book Home Runs tells how I came to live longer and more fully in Eugene than anywhere before.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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