This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here. The group I run with is called Tribe Fitness and they are absolutely incredible. Check out their Facebook page and find them on Twitter @Tribe_Fitness.
On the day I ran the Goodlife Half-Marathon in Toronto, I was walking back to a friend and fellow runner’s car to head home for the day. By this point, we had already met with some other runners and friends to celebrate crossing the finish line with brunch. We walked along Lakeshore where the full marathon was still in progress, well into its later stages. Runners came east for finishing times past the four hour mark to now empty sidewalks that were once filled with spectators who saw the winners cross the finish line two hours previously.
This is the most inspiring part of any marathon. Certainly, it’s nice to see elite runners sustaining superhuman speeds and perfect form hitting the finish with what looks like no effort at all. There’s a little something extra, however, in witnessing the quiet little triumph of those who had the courage to stay on their feet for longer than any normal person would care to early on a Sunday morning.
For one thing, among this group, there’s diversity. Elite runners all look essentially the same, at least in terms of body type. Their stories are often similar as well. They have sponsors and follow a strict training routine that lends itself to high performance running. A few nations now dominate the sport.
Those who fight their way to the finish are a wonderful rainbow of body types, age groups, and abilities. Most had a training plan, but they also had families and careers that got in the way of that training plan, so their journey to the finish line became its own unique path riddled with detours. Among this group, grandparents are running alongside college students. Parents jog along while pushing strollers. Disabled runners share the road with those who at first glance don’t look much like athletes. They’re here, though, so they are.
In my time becoming immersed in Toronto’s running community, having the opportunity to share stories with those who are not at any major race to win, but to face down a monumental challenge and say “I did it,” I’ve learned that every maniac running around the block possesses a brand of determination that goes far beyond meeting a physical challenge. It’s not just that they ran 26.2 or 13.1 miles and did so by pounding the pavement day in and day out. It’s that before they hit the pavement, a significant amount of these late finishers hit rock bottom.
Stand at the finish line of any major marathon past the four hour mark and what you’re seeing is a parade of recovering addicts and alcoholics, victims of severe injuries, runners who were once at risk of death before they hit thirty, survivors of childhood abuse, and representatives from every point along the bipolar spectrum.
In all the writing I’ve done on running, I’ve talked largely about myself and my own experiences. I suppose that’s to be expected given that running is essentially a solitary activity and one during which you spend so much time in your own head. The experience of that day at the Goodlife race, sharing the triumph of my strongest performance ever with fellow runners and friends and witnessing the inspiring spirit of those late finishers, I was reminded that as a runner I was part of a larger community. A community without whom I probably wouldn’t still be running. I was grateful.
In my experience, I have never come across a community so loving and accepting as Toronto’s massive congregation of runners. Every single age group, every culture and ethnicity, and every skill level finds a home here. When you see a large group running on a Saturday or Sunday morning, that group has openly welcomed outcasts, the aforementioned addicts, the mentally ill, and those struggling for acceptance and affirmation.
Within this broad community, there are tribes. I have mine, conveniently called Tribe. We convene on Wednesday evenings for short runs and speed work and on Saturday mornings for long runs.
This group is a bizarre family without cohesion and that’s a wonderful thing. Some have run Boston Qualifiers, competed in triathlons, and have gruelling race schedules. They look and dress the part of high performance athletes. They welcome with open arms the rest of us, those who are new to running and have never seen a distance over five kilometres as well as those making the push to a full marathon from a half.
No one’s story is quite similar, making the experience of this community all the more enriching. There’s nothing more dreary and difficult to endure in a social setting than congruity among personalities and perspectives. Though we all have running in common, the way we run, why we run, and who we are outside of running could not be more skewed.
Running gives us the opportunity, one afforded in too few places, to break through social boundaries and find friendships beyond the confines determined by our profession, educational background, age group, or place of residence. It’s a perfectly typical occurrence for a running group to forge a friendship between a retiree in their sixties and a wanderer in their twenties.
Some of us aren’t even quite sure how to run properly. When I was among this group, I was never made to feel unwelcome or shamed by the fact that I struggled so immensely. I complained vociferously, changed my pace constantly, and crashed out early. There was never a complaint from the group, at least not that I heard. I never heard anything other than positivity from other runners in my moments of greatest difficulty and no one ever seemed to believe anything other than that I was capable.
Running is treated as an act of philanthropy within this community. Philanthropy means love of humanity. My fellow runners saw through to the best in me when I couldn’t. They somehow maintain an unfailing sense of optimism that they channel into life changing support for anyone who dares to go after a goal. They believe that everyone deserves to experience themselves at their own best. That’s philanthropy.
It’s a beautiful thing not just to run with this community, but to see them run. Every run, I relive that bolt of inspiration that I experienced at the Goodlife finish line. Every run, I’m witness to runners who may not feel up to scratch on a given day, but they run anyway and are greeted with affirmation and support on their worst days. That’s love.