It started long before it began. The idea was as eloquent as it was simple – and perhaps a tad outrageous: stuff a couple of pairs of running shoes and a change of clothes into the saddlebags of a motorbike and head across country in search of new roads and new friends.
As with most outrageous ideas, it wasn’t long before the notion had transformed itself into a plan. For me, at least, good ideas wallow in obscurity in the dark corners of my mind. Outrageous ideas, however, tend to develop a life of their own. Before I knew it, the saddlebags were packed, the motorbike was tuned, and, early last summer, I hit the road.
The plan was to ride from Nashville, Tennessee, to Washington DC, to Portland, Oregon, to San Diego, California, and then back to Tennessee. Eight weeks of visiting, and talking to, members of American running clubs; eight weeks of riding, running and racing; eight weeks without the tools and trappings of adulthood – no VCR remote control, no microwave, no closet full of clothes and shoes. On a motorbike, if you can’t stuff it in, you can’t take it.
As the departure date approached and the unthinkable became inevitable, what came into focus was how running has changed my life. This trip, this concession to my chronic wanderlust, was not a journey away from it all, as other trips had been. This trip was different. It was not a trip of soul-searching and introspection; rather it was a journey of celebration.
The purpose of the journey, if it needed one, was to run new roads and meet new friends. But, in actual fact, most of the people were already like old friends. The odd part was that some of these ‘old friends’ were people I’d never met before. Yet time after time, as I described the metamorphosis that running had produced in my life, I found that it was nearly identical to other runners’ experiences.
At every stop I found people who shared my love of running, my struggle to move past self-imposed limitations and my determination to overcome an earlier life of bad judgement, poor decisions and abject ignorance. I ran with novice and veteran runners alike, and discovered that often there is very little difference between us.
At the beginning of the trip I believed my story was somehow unique. By the end, however, I knew I was just one of many people – young and old, male and female – who had ‘found’ themselves through running. By the time the trip was over, a remarkable transition had occurred.
The solitude I expected to feel during the trip was replaced by a sense of belonging. Rather than feeling isolated in my odyssey, I was buoyed by the knowledge that others had gone before me and had been successful, and that others were still behind me, following the same path.
For 56 days, and in 21 states, I was among friends. Even on mornings when I ran by myself, I knew I wasn’t really alone: I would spy another runner out on the road, and immediately we would have something in common. I would wave and smile and feel welcomed in return.
Too often we run only in our own little world. We have our favourite routes and our favourite races. We might always run alone or, if not alone, then with the same group. But the universe of running extends beyond this narrow reach. The universe of running can be as big or as small as we make it.
For your next run, throw your shoes in a bag and head out of town: if you run in the city, then visit the country; if you run in the country, try the city; or make a run for the border. Discover for yourself that you are part of a community of runners. You may find, as I did, truth in the words of country balladeer Robert Earl Keen Jr: “The road goes on forever, and the party never ends.”
Waddle on, friends.