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May 5, 2008

I ran the Broad Street Run (10 miles) yesterday.  The weather was perfect.  I only run two or three races a year.  It is quite a rush to gather with a group of runners (22,000) and spectators.  Here are some random thoughts and oberservations about the race and running in general:      

1.  There are internal and external dimensions of running.  Setting out on a run one moves from artifical environment of desk, computer, controlled climate…to the sunny, balmy mild air of spring (crisp autumn air…hazy, humid summer).  Running connects organically to the seasons–the earth.  These days I run past falling cherry blossoms…a field of freshly mown hay…another field of tilled soil…a pasture of indifferent holsteins munching grass…the ping of a driver from the nearby tee box at The Host.   

2. Then there is the meeting of external and internal as the warm sun kisses my skin and causes droplets of sweat to bead up and run down my face.  The expansion and contraction of lungs, of beating heart.  I usually don’t think as I run.  It is almost a subconsious activity.  My mind takes a backseat.  My legs take the lead.  Thoughts come and go like the passing clouds.  Sometimes I latch onto one, then let it go. 

3.  The best runs happen when no thought is given to the condition of body.  Recent food intake has been efficiently processed.  Muscles have fully recovered from the last run.  On some temperate weather days body, psyche, and environment align.  Such days can produce a serendipidous joy.  The churning legs, the elements, the smell of earth all become a pulsing whole.  Breathing.  Arms moving.  The turnover of legs constant.  It is an almost trance-like state of being.  The miles click by.

4.  Race day offers a variety of novel experiences.  The anticipation of event brings a certain performance adrenaline–even to pedestrian athletes.  The mental state is quiet anticipation for the measure of a race to be taken.  There is the hope that all things physical (internal/external) will come together in a harmonious balance.  A good equilibrium offers the possibility of a good experience–a good result. 

The gathering of runners on race day uncovers a reality that transcends running.  I am reminded that the training done in solitude establishes me as a member of a visible community.  The ascesis of individual training runs is now celebrated as a communion of runners converges on a city to celebrate a common pursuit.  For some it is a passion.  For some it is a profession.  For some it is a novelty.  Everyone runs their own race.  Yet, you do so amidst a mass of humanity that pull you along.  As I ran yesterday, I found it helpful to lock onto someone who was just a bit in front of me who was setting a pace I wanted to stay with. 

5.  The race day rituals vary from runner to runner.  Race day pick-up of number and chip for some.  Stretching.  The indispensable visit to the end of one of the single-file columns (20-25 deep) in front of the long row of porta-johns.  If everything has gone according to plan the final pre-race equilibrium is achieved with this last response to the call of nature. 

The minutes before the race begins is a particularly fascinating time.  Here is a group of people who have gathered to take part in a ritual as old as the Greeks.  Preparation for this occassion has required a commitment of mind and body.  Now there is a sense of culmination.  The mass of humanity is bound together by an esprit de corps.  Some make one last check of the ipod strapped to their arm.  Some bounce up and down.  Some turn around, jump and look back over the river of humanity flowing back several city blocks.  Some weave in and out, making their way closer to the front–seeking an earlier escape from the human traffic jam.

6.  There are runners of all ages and sizes.  I was struck by this reality when I ran my first marathon.  The race was not just made up of those with the body type of a gazelle. 

7.  Some start fast and fade as the race stretches on.  Some have entered the race with little or no time given to training.  Others in my starting group (7:00 minute miles) find a steady cadence and begin to churn away the miles.  Some will continue to work their way up through the field throughout the race.  It is not how fast you begin that will determine your time at the finish.  Rather, it is the right pace sustained over the course of the race that will yield the best time. 

I feel good for most of the run.  The more you are able to put into training, the faster you can run.  The human body is primed for more efficiency, so the turnover of strides is yielding a better result.  Remarkably, the faster your time, the better you might feel.  The elite runners who are way out in front, do not suffer anymore than the ones in the middle of the pack. 

My time at the finish line is 1 minute and thirty seconds faster than last year.  My fleet friends Justin and Bud have crossed the line long before me.  It is an amazing thought to think that my running partners could have given me a seven minute head start, and they still would have overtaken me by the end.  I have the good fortune to be able to train with Mercury and Hermes.

The pre-race comradarie is only heightened by the post-race euphoria.  The timing chip is removed.  A short distance past the finish chute and to the left, tables offer Philadelphia pretzels and cups of Gatorade to restore the depleted energy reserves of the body.  The procession continues through a tent where runners pick up a bag containing further aliment–banana, orange, snack bar, yogurt….

Race ritual completed, the day exhales and the fellowship subsides until another race day.

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