With the start of the new semester came the start of slogging with students after class. Slogging is “slow-jogging,” and it often alternates between jogging and walking. There is always lots of talking and laughing mixed in too. We’ve been doing this for a couple of years now and it’s been a great way to get to know students better or even meet new freshmen. At the first slog of the semester, Michael, who “slalked” with the group of slow walkers all of last year decided to run with us. I asked him if he had run in the past, and he said, “Yes.” I asked if he ran cross country or track, and he responded with, “I ran in elementary school, you know, to the playground.” Three miles later Michael had completed his first 5K. His legs were tired, but he was pretty amped up and very proud of himself.
Two weeks later E. Coop showed up and said she was going to run too. She is a self-proclaimed non-runner, but what the heck? She hung right in there with us, alternating between running and walking in 95 degree heat and full sun for 2 miles. When she told us she was heading back to her dorm, she appeared to be dying. An hour later she posted on social media “So now that I’ve been able to sit, shower, and drink water, I feel more alive. And I’m a little proud of myself for actually running today.”
If I’m completely honest, I run for selfish reasons. I love the way I feel after a run. I love the quiet time in my brain while I run. I love what running does for my health. I run to stay in shape and to hopefully stay alive long enough to see my kids grow up. I run so that I can be healthy enough to enjoy life. I run so that I can eat doughnuts, waffles, and ice cream. But somewhere under all that selfishness, I also run for moments like the ones described above. I love to share something so wonderful - something I truly believe in – with the people around me. I know how it can help them, and I want them to experience it.
The last week of July my son Blue joined the Cross Country team at his school. He was not a runner and had zero desire to run Cross Country. Basically, he was told he needed to find a school sport he wanted to participate in. The physical activity and social aspects of team sports are important, and it’s something he’s avoided up until 8th grade. So he looked at the practice times and the length of the seasons and decided that Cross Country might be the lesser of all the evils. Some of you may be thinking his runner dad pressured him into running. You would be wrong. I never ran for any team or school and other than running every day and having great running shoes, I know relatively nothing about running. His first Cross Country practice was also my first Cross Country practice.
On July 25 Blue ran 1.5 miles in 18 minutes. On August 20 he ran his first ever 5K in 44:55. He’s been steadily improving since. He’s shaved more than 10 minutes off his 5K time, lost about 6 pounds, and has stopped feeling like he’s seriously dying every time he runs.
To qualify to run with the team in a meet, male runners must run a 5K on a tough course in under 31 minutes. The last .25 miles of the 5K is up a killer hill. The kind of hill that leaves you gagging at the top. And the heat and humidity in the South during August and September is something you have to experience to fully understand.
Everyone on the team knows exactly how difficult it is to start running. Some of these kids are running 18 and 19 minute 5Ks. But there’s something really amazing about runners. Runners encourage each other. Everyone probably wants to be the fastest person on the team. Everyone wants to make All-State and win awards, so there is a level of competition, but even when they’re running in a race you’ll hear these kids encouraging other runners. I watched a girl pass another runner in the final stretch of a race and she managed to shout “You’re doing great!” to the runner as she passed.
While his teammates wait for Blue to finish running, they often backtrack on the trail until they meet him and then run with him to get him to the finish line. On laps they all shout instructions and encouragement to him. The team parents also do this. On the days I’m not able to make it to practice, some of the other dads run with him. It’s so cool.
Last week during a Saturday morning practice Blue had to run 2 miles and his goal was sub 20 minutes. We started out strong and he was at the front of the pack, running with the fastest runners. As we approached the .5 mile mark, the other runners slowly started to pass and move forward. As each one passed Blue they shouted encouragement telling him what a great start he had. I stayed with him, just a couple of steps ahead, for the entire time. I shouted, pushed and encouraged. I told him his pace and when he needed to pick it up. The last .5 miles of his run was going to be downhill and he needed to make up some time. There were several college team runners on the trail doing laps for a long run and as we approached the last .5 mile a group of them were gaining on us. I urged Blue to run hard, to sprint to the finish. I told him not to let those guys pass him. He turned it on and ran as hard as he could. For that entire stretch I shouted and he pushed. And then the coolest thing happened. As the group finally started to overtake him near his finish line, each of them started shouting encouragement to him. They called him by his name and told him to finish strong, that he could do it, and to not give up. It was truly wonderful. Blue finished his two miles in 20:02, just 2 seconds over his goal. He felt great.
Last night Blue ran the 5K course and hoped to qualify. During the team time before running, the coach asked the runners to share something they were thankful for. One of the varsity runners said he was thankful for Blue and that he was working so hard to get better.
When we started running the 5K Blue didn’t feel like he was going fast enough. He did well on the first mile but stopped hitting his goals after that. His legs were tired and felt sluggish. Every runner knows this feeling well. He was getting frustrated but still he was close. Close enough to have hope all the way to the last terrible uphill stretch. Other runners were on the course, strangers not affiliated with his team or any team. As they passed each one offered encouragement to Blue. During the last half mile the male varsity runners from Blue’s team left their practice sprints and backtracked down the trail to find Blue and run him in to the finish line. They ran with him every step and offered advice and encouragement to the very last step. They paused to congratulate him on running hard and told him he was doing great before heading back to finish their practice. Blue didn’t make his qualifying time but shaved another minute off his 5K. He did great.
Now I can’t stop thinking about the encouragement Blue has been given since he joined the team. These runners offering words of encouragement and acts of kindness are just regular people They’re high school and middle school students with normal lives and stresses of their own. But when they encourage someone they become extraordinary. They literally change another person’s life.
I can’t help but wonder what it would look like if I lived my life like those runners. What would it look like if you metaphorically stopped your regular practice and backtracked to meet a frustrated soul where they were and ran with them to the finish? What would it look like if I encouraged strangers with kind words and deeds that literally changed their lives?
I want to find out.