I’ve just returned from the first of a four-race winter series hosted by my running club, and an icy, snowy, muddy adventure it was. But the cerulean skies were classic Colorado, temperatures were mild and the sun shone.
A good crowd turned out, each of us wearing shoes fortified with screws or encased in Yaktrax or microspikes to keep us upright on the trails. A veterans’ running team unfurled the flags they would carry throughout the race. Spectators cheered. Dogs barked, frantically wagging their tails and straining at their leashes to run with us. And then we were off.
I’ve been a runner for three decades, and in recent years have become competitive in my age group. This is less a reflection of fitness and skill than of perseverance: As I get older, the competition lessens, due to age and attrition. So far, I’ve kept going.
It’s wonderful to win age-group awards, but races matter for a more basic reason: They present a discrete challenge at which we may test fortitude and strength — not just physically, but where the toughest battles are engaged: in the heart, mind and spirit. Here, the self meets the self, and victory is measured not by a clock but by the ability to muster an “I can” tough enough to overcome the persistent “I can’t” that arises when we come up against our edges.
I see the strain on the faces of my fellow runners, each of whom brings a particular story to the start line, an unspoken narrative of struggle and aspiration. As we move into the belly of the race and then push toward the finish, we are each — regardless of age, gender or ability — working hard to see ourselves home with as much strength, speed and grace as we can gather. Aid-station volunteers and spectators offer encouragement from the sidelines; like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, runners are greatly helped by the kindness of strangers.
But the inner battle is ours alone, and only we can know whether we’ve fought the good fight. I think most runners do, each in the context of his or her own story; I can feel it in their effort, no less than my own.
And this is another reason I race: I am, in truth, a misanthrope who struggles to like our troublesome species, myself included. But how I want to! I long to see the beauty in every human being: the spirit, the heart, the determination. I want to feel moved by our earnest efforts, touched by our essential goodness.