Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Taking the "hi" road

Today is my first official day of training for the Joongang Ilbo Marathon, coming on November 6. It's 90 degrees Fahrenheit and I'm waiting for the sun to go down so I can run. Meanwhile, I'm thinking...

I was introduced to running in its first boom, just as I was a senior in high school. This was in 1970, when the world was young and I was younger yet.

One of the first things I learned was that, when you pass another runner going the other way, you acknowledge him (or her, of course). A little wave, a nod, a smile, no matter how tired you may be. You are touching the earth together, in time and, if only for a moment, in space. It's simple etiquette.

(Wouldn't you say hi to this friendly fellow?)

I encouraged the same camaraderie on the cross-country teams I coached: when you pass a teammate coming the other way, touch hands in a light high-five. It may defy the laws of physics, but that touch makes both of you stronger. One reason I've always loved cross country is how, toward the end of the race, runners from any team will shout encouragement to members of any other team. In a sense, they're all on the same team. It's what you do.

When I ran my first full marathon in Chuncheon last October, it was a lonely thing; unlike many people in American crowds, Koreans who line the course near the end stand quietly, waiting for their friends to run by, not spending energy cheering for strangers. I pulled into Nazareth, feelin' 'bout half-past dead, as the Band sings, and thank God Shira and Zuleika from the Seoul Flyers were standing a couple of hundred yards from the finish, waiting to cheer me and the other Flyers on. For forty years, I'd pictured dozens or hundreds cheering for me, and I got two. But it was a very good two, and they made the last couple of minutes of the marathon so much more positive for me.

I run almost exclusively, when I'm not hashing, on the Yangjae Cheon now, and among the dogwalkers and plain old walkers and bicyclists and kids and couples there are always runners. I smile or nod or raise my hand in greeting; sometimes they respond and sometimes they don't. I'm just getting over the pettiness of being annoyed when they don't; I suppose they didn't start running forty years ago in Ithaca, New York (although why the hell not?), so probably they're not being rude, just uninformed.

But once in a while, an ajumma (stereotypical flowery-bloused, bevisored, chattering middle-aged lady) who's never run a day in her life will smile at me, or a man old enough to have fought in the war here will shout "USA Number One!" And that makes up for a lot. We're all on the same team, you see.
And when I finish the Joongang in November, the first thing I'm going to do is stagger back to the last hundred yards of the course and cheer for the people behind me. It's what you do.

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