I grew up in the city. When I started spending more time in my husband’s hometown at the beginning of our relationship, everything about rural country living seemed novel. The most noteworthy phenomenon was the degree of familiarity between residents of the area. Everybody knows their neighbors. Beyond that, the oral histories of entire families are recited by rote. Each farm and road has its accompanying story, usually a narrative that is darkly bittersweet. Churches and deer nearly outnumber denizens, and the event of the year remains a town parade and carnival in the middle of the summer.
We move on in life, and our sense of “home” acquires a multitude of meanings. As we explore our passions and seek out opportunities to engage, new communities emerge. As our children progress through their educational journeys, we join fellow parents among the ranks of the village. In our professions, we solidify networks of colleagues, and come to find, rather incredulously, that we begin to be called upon as institutional or organizational historians, able to reflect on a sum of experiences. And, if you run for a long enough time in your hometown, you begin to find yourself a place in that community, as well.
I see the same familiar faces on my Saturday morning runs. Some belong to people I know from other parts of life. Some are simply recognizable due to repetition. As I reflect on that observation, I begin to realize that a community of runners functions like a small hometown. We remember the races, year to year, and make jokes about the weather and other unfortunate variables. We feel relief upon encountering an acquaintance on a dimly lit trail, or motivated to run all the way to the crest of the hill when we know a fellow runner is watching.
Maybe I’ve seen you two other times in my life, but if we weave around each other, back and forth, over the course of a soggy and miserable road run, we may very well embrace at the end.
“Thank you,” is a common muttering we hear between strangers at the finish line, “you kept me going until the end.”
Running is both solitary and collective. While we bear the responsibility for our own feet and legs, we also uplift other runners through our example, words, and presence. Often, the thought of being that face for another person is the reasoning that pushes me over the hump of lacing up my shoes on an early weekend morning. To those just beginning, we are all strangers. Give it time, however, and we will become their people.