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Why We Miss Races

Discovering that races are all about racers—even for solitary runners.

Ask me my favorite race memories and I’ll tell you about the time my training partner and I sped along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, flying faster than I believed possible yet the miles kept clicking by—drawing energy from each other as we ran side-by-side for 12 miles until he pulled away on the small hill by the art museum and pulled me down the flag-lined Ben Franklin Parkway to finish in a huge PR. We exchanged less than one hand’s full of words during that hour and 17 minutes, but I’ve rarely felt closer to another man.

Or I’ll tell you about falling in with a group of runners taking turns leading into the wind on the north-bound early miles of the Jersey Shore Marathon, then pulling away from them and picking off fading runners one by one until, unbelievably, a volunteer told me I was in fourth. It was another PR, but that fact just shines a warm glow over the memories of the place and the people I ran with and against, strangers connected this day by the experience of striving together toward a shared goal.

Many of the best memories aren’t PRs. I will tell you about running up Irish mountains with new-found friends and charging back down with a crazed smile, unselfconscious of the snot and mud splattered across my face. Of running across the Golden Gate Bridge step-for-step with my son in his first half marathon. Or, closer to home, of a small-town Fourth of July 5K where I chased down the high school kids I coached who had gone out a bit fast. We hung together as a team for a mile, then, as the group spread out, I cheered on the junior pulling away, then outkicked a rival-town freshman (for the first and last time). After, we congratulated each other, commiserated on how hot that middle mile felt, compared training, and wished each other strong summer miles.

photo: Deadwood Michelson Trail Marathon

A few weeks ago, I would have told you that the reason I enjoy racing was for the personal challenge. I like setting a goal, working toward it, and having a day of reckoning where I see how good I can be—or at least how good I can be at this age.

The social aspect of racing was far down on my list, in fact, I may have dismissed it altogether. I’ve often opined on the lovely loneliness of the solitary run, often celebrated those of us who are drawn to the sport in part because we can do it alone. We’d rather be out on a quiet road or trail than in the middle of a crowded party. We’ve found that, like Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

At races, when others are joining a group warm-up with loud music, forced frivolity and mandatory enthusiasm—“I can’t hear you! I said ‘Good morning!’”—we’re quietly jogging down an empty alley with an inward-focused gaze. We tend to skip the pre-race pasta and the post-race concert. We’re not looking for a party, we’re looking for a race. I’ve prided myself in the old-school mentality that says all I need is a starting line, finish line and accurate clock.

So it comes as a surprise to discover, now that we’ve lost racing, that what I miss is other people. It’s suddenly clear that racing is about other racers—those we know and those we don’t, those we’re running with and those we’re racing against.

I miss passing people and being passed, chasing and leading, latching on and tucking in, surging and reacting, striving alongside, kicking down and being outkicked, inspiring each other to greater effort. I miss being among others uncool enough to care, others willing to look like a fool, to suffer in public for no better reason than to see how much we’re willing to suffer. I miss the camaraderie of those who know the joy of those solitary miles and the beauty of that dark place where there’s nothing left but the Will that says, “Hold on!” I miss panting with hands on knees, reaching out a dripping arm for a fist-bump that says, more than any words can convey, “I know.”

Solitary runners may not come to races for what others consider socializing, but I’m discovering we come for social reasons. The race itself is our party, and our social interaction is rich and profound, even when we’re breathing too hard to talk.

In the meantime, I’m trying to make the most of virtual racing. While I’m finding that virtual racing is rather like reading the box score the morning after instead of watching the game, it does satisfy the need for goals and measurement.

To make it a bit more like a real race, rather than running random distances, I’ve laid out courses for 5K, 10K and the half marathon, courses that reflect the character of my neighborhood and which I’d like to share with others. For now, I have to rely on imagination: what would it be like to see those ahead and behind on that little scenic out-and-back section; would I push the pace on that hill or cruise up it and try to drop people on the slight downhill after; when would I start my final kick, before or after clearing the tree line and seeing the finish line ahead…

Imagination helps, but, I promise, when we do get to race again, I’ll cherish others as I never have before.