BY PATRICK DEAN
Photo by Tiare Vincent
So we went into the city, where a microbrewery hosts a weekly thing called Joggers & Lagers. Show up at 6, run a 5K with the group, hang out afterward with food & drink.
My friend had done it before; it sounded like a great reason to move my run from the typical morning time to evening. Plus: beer.
A dozen or so of us stand around awkwardly, the ones who know each other, the locals, making small talk. Finally, one of the locals says, “Well, I guess we’ll go,” punches her watch, and starts down the sidewalk.
I go out faster than normal. Even decades after my first footrace, with all the wisdom and experience of my years, I can’t resist the urge to stay with the group, a good two minutes per mile faster than I usually do.
But it feels different. I’m surfing on a wave of adrenaline, coasting with the energy of the start as though I were going downhill. After a while, like reaching the bottom of the hill, I slow, naturally, easily, and the front of the group pulls away. And it is fine.
Facing into the beating late-afternoon Southern sun, into the breeze along the greenway, I hunt shade along retaining walls and focus on breathing and rhythm. Soon, I approach another runner, whose stride seems labored. I am going to pass him. I do pass him, with a friendly word.
There is satisfaction — not the satisfaction of beating somebody, not the zero-sum “I’m going to finish one place ahead of him,” but instead the satisfaction of thinking, Maybe I’m doing a good job of knowing myself here. Maybe I’m having good situational awareness, of my body, my run, my mind.
I meet the front group coming back, and soon after, reach the turnaround, remembering the rises and downhills and pacing accordingly on the way back to the bar. The sun is behind me now; so is the wind. At a slight left turn, I look to the right and see that one of the runners has taken a right turn, off the course. Is she lost? I run a bit farther, then stop, pause my watch. What if she’s lost? Jogging back to the separation point, I look but don’t see her. I tell an arriving runner, who suggests that she was heading home, or something. I restart my watch and head back to the finish, where someone assures me that the wrong-turn runner will be fine.
Chips and queso, French fries, big hot pretzels with beer cheese outside under patio umbrellas. At our separate tables, we don’t know each other, but we’re a group: we’ve run together, and there’s an unspoken camaraderie. As we leave I stop by the biggest table, tell them it was fun, say we’ll be back. The locals smile and reply.
I hadn’t realized that between injury, life stuff, and then the pandemic, it had been over two years since I ran any way but alone, in the woods. I hadn’t known how much I missed the feeling of running in a group — however small, however casual — or that automatic groupness after a run.
I also had no idea how much it would mean to be in the mindset, if not the reality, of a race. By which I don’t mean trying to win, or place, or anything, but just the mental exercise of being on this common venture of running from start to finish, out and back, with other people.
Now I’m back to my woods, running in the early-summer dawn, the meditation of roots and rocks and birds and dirt. But I know that eventually, I’ll again line up with others like me. We may have racing bibs on, or not. It may be intense, or casual. But we’ll be together, pursuing the reassuring, challenging feeling of being a part of the human tribe, moving through space on our feet.