During one of the ten 5K loops I ran this past weekend at a trail ultra, I chatted with another runner who so preferred running trails and so despised running roads that for the 50 yards of the course that were on parking lot instead of trail, he went out of his way to run around the asphalt. “Trail running is the best,” he gushed. “Trail runners are the best. They are so much nicer than road runners. If a trail runner falls, others stop and help. That would never happen on roads!”
I smiled, not because I agreed but because I’ve heard it all before. I’ve been both roads-only and trails-4eva at different points in my life, and in my experience each group makes similar claims about the other. Road-running friends of mine have told of being made to feel like non-star-bellied Sneetches when they tried to join a trail group, while trail aficionados will grouse about the road-racing mentality of caring more about beating other people than actually having any fun. So, too, with baseball teams—the other team always has the rudest fans—and politics, and everything else you can think of on this planet that can be categorized and, inevitably, pitted against each other.
As much as I would like to believe in the simplicity and purity of running, nothing in this world is ever free of complication and mess. Yes, it’s true that running can bring very different people together to form a caring community with a shared goal, but it’s easy to do that when the goal is a voluntarily chosen one and the people all have a certain degree of privilege. No, not all runners are wealthy, but we all have enough time to run for enjoyment and enough money to pay for shoes and race fees, and not everyone in the world can say that. And even in our shared goal, we create conflict. Trails vs. roads. Carbs vs. protein. Maximalist vs. minimalist vs. bare. Us vs. them. Even common ground comes in different, seemingly mutually exclusive types.
When we came around to the start/finish, I wished the trails-only guy well and let him go ahead, since his pace was faster than mine and since in truth I’m one of those runners (and here’s yet another divide) who doesn’t like to talk while running and he clearly did. When I started my next loop, I noticed after a while that two runners just behind me were going about the same pace I was. They were talkers, and I couldn’t avoid overhearing, but luckily their conversation wasn’t annoying and didn’t involve me, so I didn’t feel the anxious urge to drop back or surge ahead. I could tell that these two hadn’t known each other before the race but were both friendly, chatty people. I could also tell very quickly that their similarities pretty much ended there and they were about as different as you could imagine.
One was a young woman who was a senior at Purdue, the other was a retired ex-Marine with a “Semper Fi” tattoo, and they were talking about places they’d been in the world. Semper Fi had been stationed in Hawaii for a while, and Purdue asked him what it was like. “Did you get to see anything there? I mean, are you allowed to leave the base?” Clearly she had no idea what military life was like—seemed to think it was something akin to hard labor in prison. She meanwhile had just returned from a summer abroad in Turkey. “Turkey?!” he exclaimed, in a tone that clearly implied why in the hell would you go there? “That sounds dangerous.” “Oh no,” Purdue assured him. “Turkey is a very safe place. I loved it there. The people are so nice, and I never felt like I was in danger, even walking around at night. Crime is very low. The prisons are pretty awful,” she added, “so no one wants to commit a crime!”
There was a pause, and Semper Fi spoke again. “I have to say, I don’t think much of the ways of that part of the world.”
I took a deep breath and let it out. I was running, after all, and breathing is kind of important, but I also sensed something happening back there. There’s a moment during a conversation with someone you don’t know very well when one of you says something that causes both of you to freeze just a bit. Things were pleasant up until then, but now you realize that perhaps this person might be on the opposite side of an important divide. You don’t want to get into all that with someone you just met, so you don’t go there, but your interaction has been changed permanently and you are both likely looking for ways to end it with cool civility. Such was the case, I figured, with Purdue and Semper Fi. Things were different now; there were longer pauses between things each of them said, and it wasn’t because they were getting out of breath. It was early in the race; we all still had a long way to go.
After I finished that loop I got myself a salted potato, quickly filled up my water bottle, and went out again. I was feeling good that day, and in fact I ended up running one of my best ultras ever. This ends up changing nothing in the world for anyone but me, and even for me it isn’t exactly life-altering. I ran hard and did well, I ate a lot and took a nap, and now it’s two days later and facebook continues to be plagued with posts about how evil, immoral, criminal, and just plain stupid the other side is.
I have views. Some of them are strong ones. As such, I’m not going to make some soft, mushy statement about how life should be more like running, where we can put aside our differences and just accept each other as is. It’s easy to get along with people when nothing much is at stake, which is the case when a bunch of runners get together to run circles in the woods all day. When your identity, your values, your livelihood or your very life is at stake, you choose sides, and you fight hard for yours, and you understandably may even come to hate people who represent the side that wants to take all that away from you. A fellow running friend of mine likes to say “Life is hard; running is easy,” and she’s right, not because I ran effortlessly and pain-free last weekend (oh hell no; there was massive effort and tremendous pain), but because I knew exactly what I had to do and no one was standing in the way of my getting it done but me. That’s not true of a lot of other things in life for a lot of people, and the conversation I’d overheard, with its clash of ideologies, reminded me of this. In a trail ultra, that kind of conflict may result in no more than an uncomfortable pause; in the world, it can be much worse.
Funny thing, though: after I started running again, I realized those two were still behind me—still together, still talking. Now they were comparing different races they’d done. “I can’t believe how expensive road marathons are getting to be!” Semper Fi said. “You know New York is like five hundred dollars?”
“Seriously?!” Purdue exclaimed. “Wow. The last trail marathon I did was like thirty bucks!”
I smiled again, albeit wryly. OK, so maybe one divide replaces another and we’re forever us-ing and them-ing. Maybe it’s naïve to take any kind of positive message from this incident because after all, it is just running. But I refuse to believe that’s nothing. It is possible, at least some of the time, to accept differences and get along and work toward a common goal. It can happen, which means it can happen again. After this loop, after this day, we go forward together for another.