It’s a question that we receive again and again from non-runner friends, family members, and co-workers. Seeing us doggedly logging miles in snow and rain, or noticing how we structure our days around runs, these folks are curious to know why we are so devoted to such the seemingly nonsensical activity that is running.
Often, it is difficult for us runners to answer this question with any sort of specificity. We know that we love to run, but it’s difficult to put our fingers on just why we do it. What drives us to spend hours putting one foot in front of the other on lonely backroads? Why do we set 6AM alarms for freezing pre-dawn track sessions? What makes a person sacrifice their toenails and Sunday mornings for sweat and long runs? It’s as difficult for me as it is for any runner to say why I run, but there is one particular day that encapsulates why I (and so many others) love this crazy sport.
In April 2016, during my final semester of high school, I signed up for a 10 mile race in nearby Gettysburg. Having recently switched over from school-sanctioned track and field to my true passion of road running, I was eager to put countless training miles to the test in one of my first “real” long-distance road races. On a perfect spring morning, hundreds of runners and I surged forward after the starting gun, adrenaline-fueled legs carrying us down scenic, sun-soaked roads. As the pack thinned after the first few miles however, I found myself in second place and running all by myself as the course became increasingly hilly. My field of vision narrowed to the rapidly receding neon-green singlet of the lone runner ahead as my feet pounded the pavement.
After a grueling climb up a massive hill, I finally reached the turnaround point of the 10 miler. Even as the first-place runner surged out of view ahead, my screaming legs made their displeasure known, and my mind soon followed suit. Once driven away by the challenge of the race, doubts began to creep in. “You haven’t trained enough,” it said. “You’re too tired,” it insisted. “Why did you even sign up for this?”
Just then, other runners appeared, their silhouettes shimmering from the heat of the road. On this out-and-back course, participants going downhill after the turnaround would pass head-on with other runners headed uphill, and it was these runners that I began to see by the dozens. Although they were facing the prospect of a brutal uphill on a warming April day, the other racers still used their precious oxygen to cheer for…me? With calls of “you got this!” and enthusiastic high-fives and thumbs-up, they urged me on to the finish even when they hadn’t yet reached the halfway point.
Before I knew it, the runners’ encouragement cleared my mental fog, and with it, the heaviness creeping through my muscles. I even found myself smiling and cheering for them, buoyed by the bond that I felt with the other racers. Their support carried me all the way through the rest of the race, and although I netted a shiny new PR, that was not the greatest prize from the 2016 Gettysburg 10 Miler.
Rather, my experience on those hot, hilly roads gave me something far more valuable. Looking back on that morning three years ago, I now realize that the actions of the Gettysburg racers encapsulated everything that so many love most about running.
It is not flashy race swag, high-tech shoes, or even the fabled runners’ high that keeps me coming back to this sport. Instead, it is the camaraderie and mutual support that running creates among its devotees, from the elite marathoners shown on TV to moms training for their very first 5K. This, more than anything else, is why I run, and I bet it’s a big reason why you do too.