By Christopher Cudworth
At the age of six years old, I grabbed a traditional old watch off my father’s dresser and headed out to the side yard of our Lancaster, Pennyslvania home. The yard had once been a clay tennis court, so it was flat, rectangular and ideal for running laps. With that watch in my hand, I stood at one of the corners waiting for the second hand to reach 12. Then I took off running as fast as I could around the entire lawn.
I don’t recall the time it took to circle the yard. I do recall running that lap again, and again. It was my goal to run faster, yet somehow my times were almost always the same. My first-grade mind did not accept this fact. I pushed myself even past the point where my legs were tired, my lungs ached and sweat rolled down my face. And then I stopped running that day.
But I didn’t give up.
The notion and feel of running sank deep into my being. I liked the feel of it, and took inspiration by glancing back at the single red circle on the back of my Red Ball Jets. Those were sneakers, as we called them. I swore they made me faster.
It was all there, you see. All the components of being a runner were installed in that early download. All that was left was to find out what being a runner really means.
By the time I was nine, it was beginning to become a bit more clear. I ran everywhere possible in those days. That was almost unlimited because we lived next to a golf course with long green fairways that felt good even under bare feet. I was a minimalist then.
At school, we chased each other around the playground all the time, running fast as we could to catch someone or run away. Playing tag was fun. And yes, there was something thrilling about not actually being able to catch a girl. Wait, she’s faster than me? And then it happened. She almost seemed to want to be caught, slowing down in that way that girls do when they seem to know something you don’t, and kind of want to tell you, but not quite. In fact, that seemed to be the case with girls all that time.
And then, when you drew close enough to see the sheen of sweat on her face gleaming in the morning sunshine, and laughter came out of her in that wonderful way only girls can laugh, you wondered about those strange feelings inside of your chest. Could it be that you really like her?
So began the strange relationship between being a runner, which can be a lonely occupation, and being wanted by someone else. Running can confuse and clarify these thoughts. That’s one of the tarsnakes of being a runner. It helps you figure out who you are even as it challenges the notion of who you really want to be. Perhaps it is no wonder, given the relational dynamic between love of running and love of life, that there are now more women runners than men?
Still, some of these discoveries come in stark increments. As the day I learned at the end of every baseball practice that I could outrun every other kid on the team. Out to the light pole beyond center field and back. I loved that feeling. I was a baseball player, and yet something more was at work…
Then came the day in 7th grade gym class when we ran a 12:00 time trial. I covered two whole miles on a cinder track in Converse basketball shoes and it turned out I was the kid in class who could run the longest, fastest. So what was that worth?
Then came the first 880 yard race in 8th grade track. It was a raw run on a cold April afternoon against a tough kid from an Aurora, Illinois school who would not give up. That’s how you learn respect for competitors. A valuable lifelong lesson.
In high school cross country and track it was time to learn the value of hard work. Hot pre-season runs and cold morning races in mud, wind and rain.
Then came college cross country and track, testing physical and mental limits with 100 mile weeks and track workouts so hard you literally threw up. But improvement came about as a result. Times dropped. Trophies came along. The relationship between commitment and achievement was affirmed.
And on the personal side, there was also true love. Those early feelings of chasing girls around the schoolyard got serious in the late teens and early 20s. Running was always a tool to figure out the love thing. You run with that person swimming around in your head and it is inspiring. I ran better than ever knowing there was someone waiting for me back at the dorm. It’s like the yin and yang of being. Motion and stillness. Strife and comfort. Joy and pain. Those feelings still abound today.
Then came life changes, and post-collegiate decision-making. That college romance fizzled out and the world opened up wide. Job choices and job changes came along, and still I kept training. You find out what it really means to be a runner when it comes down to choosing your priorities in life.
In my case I literally spent a year and a half trying to become the best runner I could be. It was nonsensical in a way because I was not world class by any measure except one. In the Marty Liquori book about training for distance running the cutoff for a world class time in the 10k was listed as 31:00. And I did that.
But that’s still not what it means to be a runner. There are actually tons of people who can run that fast. In the long run you learn that all numbers are in some sense arbitrary.
That means you have to define for yourself what a specific accomplishment means in context of your own being. Even truly world class runners have to grapple with that fact. No matter how well you ran yesterday, there is still tomorrow to define. Perhaps you leverage those experiences into inspiration for others. A noble cause. Because the watch doesn’t lie, and those who have achieved significant personal bests do deserve to document them. Those minutes and seconds are real.
As runners, we try hard to fix those moments in time. A sticker on your car? 26.2? 13.1? 70.2? We call ourselves marathoners. Half-marathoners. Triathletes. Ironman. That’s all nice, but it’s more than that.
What it means to be a runner is best defined as the knowledge that for as long as you can manage it, tomorrow is another opportunity to run. All your history and past achievements do matter, but what ultimately matters is fostering the will to do more. To the best of your ability at any age, what it means to be a runner is to make the most of the time you have on this earth by truly feeling alive.
That’s what started this kid running laps around a side yard with his father’s watch in hand. That’s what kept this man covering distances that could have taken him a couple times around the world. Running helps you see the world in a better way. That’s what it means to be a runner.
Want a poster with the artwork featured in today’s blog? Take a quick visit to my site at Fine Art America. The poster features images published with the original essay in Runner’s World using these illustrations.