I ran my last race of the year on a chilly but sunny Saturday in Wisconsin, at the Bong State Recreation Area (which, as a friend notes, must require an enormous budget for the replacement of stolen signage). Calling this a “race” suggests a certain degree of structure and formality, and while there was a bit of that—the course was well marked, the aid stations provided plenty of typical distance running fare—the main rule was “choose a distance you feel like running, run it in whatever time you feel like taking, and have fun.” This is the kind of race ethos I tend to embrace in a big way, and given the dark cloud that’s been hovering over me the last few days, a long run in the sunshine seemed like just what I needed.
I’ve been running for ten years now, and there are still aspects of running that are a mystery to me—for example, the mental versus the physical. A lot of people will tell you that running is more mental than physical, and while there’s certainly truth to that—you can have all the physical ability you want and squander it entirely if your head isn’t in the right place—it’s so grossly oversimplified as to be almost useless as practical advice. Mental ain’t worth squat if you haven’t trained, and if wanting it badly enough were all it took to reach a running goal—or any goal—well, the finish line would have to be as wide as the race is long because there’d be a ridiculous tie for first place. All that said, my head was almost certainly not in the right place when the RD said “go.”
This was a small race—maybe 60 runners total—so most of the time I ran alone, which I much prefer. Because this was a recreational park, however, there were many points where I came across other people on the trails. I am an introvert, a misanthrope, and a general shunner of humanity, but when I run, I jettison all that baggage to improve my pace. At an appropriate point, I meet their eyes and greet them—nothing too effusive, that’s a little freaky, but just enough to give them the small courtesy of acknowledging their existence. They almost always return the courtesy. If they don’t, depending on how things are going for me in the race, I might just shrug, or chuckle, or hiss obscenities about them under my breath, but such occurrences are rare. And as silly as it sounds, those little exchanges can really help with the mental part of running a long race.
There were many such exchanges during this particular race. Along a duckpond I saw hunters in orange vests with an eager golden retriever at their side. I nodded and smiled. On the horse trail I saw an older couple riding pretty pintos. I nodded and smiled. A black couple, an Asian couple, a white family with four small children looking just as golden and exuberant as the retriever had been. Nod and smile, nod and smile, nod and smile, always reciprocated. It should have made me feel good. Normally it would have. It didn’t. As soon as our friendly greetings were exchanged, the shadow of that cloud fell over me again. Ugly, ugly thoughts wormed through my head. So, here we are, being so respectful and decent to each other—well, golly, that must mean all’s right with the world! Certainly that’s borne out in current events. We’ve had an African-American President—minorities must be just fine! We had a female major-party candidate for President—women must be fine! America is the land of opportunity, so the working class is A-OK! And white people—well, they’re white, so of course they’re fine!
We aren’t fine. We have significant problems to deal with, problems that won’t be solved with a nod and a smile.
I ended up not having a particularly good race, which isn’t surprising. More surprising, perhaps, is the fact that I might have actually needed to have a not-so-good race. It’s easy to be a nice person when things are going well for you. When they aren’t, you need another reason.
Kindness matters. The world can be such a lousy place, the people in it so capable of coldness, rudeness, hostility, or worse, especially to someone they don’t know, that when a random stranger treats you kindly, it matters. Lately I’ve been wondering, though, if it really is enough. We are one way on the trail on a sunny day, with our nodding and smiling, but another way online or in the voting booth. We are one way when we sit down one-to-one with someone different from us and another way when we are surrounded by people who look like us. We are one way when we are satisfied with our lives and another way entirely when someone else seems to be getting a little more than we are, without deserving it, certainly not any more than we do.
And lest you think I imagine myself above all that, I assure you I realize I’m capable of the same bad behavior as everyone else. I’ve said and done incredibly stupid things (and I can just picture a few of you out there reading this and muttering “Got that right, Moffitt”). I had hoped to do my best to counter those stupid things with thoughtfulness and compassion whenever possible. If I was successful at all, I wonder now if it made any real difference. I never thought running was the solution to anything, but I wanted to believe it wasn’t merely self-indulgent and self-aggrandizing to run long distances and write about it. I wanted to believe the things I experienced on the trail could mean something more—something positive for moving forward. This particular time, all I did was end up back where I started.