A Place to Belong: A Running Community

I began running in grad school for a number of reasons, ranging from a burning desire to do better than a very successful classmate, the struggle with my weight and body image, anger management, and to raise a middle finger to my orthopedic from 10 years ago who said I could never run.

Since then, I’ve run in the British 10K, the Broad Street Run (2x), a 5K throughout the Philadelphia Zoo, and the Rock and Roll Half Marathon. All were great accomplishments when taken my body’s limitations into consideration (flat feet, weak ankles, a bad back, sciatica, and no cartilage underneath my kneecaps, not to mention what is sounding more and more like asthma).

What is more than that, I’ve discovered this incredible community of athletes who work so hard to call themselves “runners.” People who range from the 70+ year-old, three-time cancer survivor I met whilst running my first half marathon to old classmates looking to lose 100-or-so pounds or baby/college/thyroid/overindulgence weight. They’ve run Boston after the bombing, they’ve run at 5AM in January, they’ve run around the block just to say they weren’t on the couch all night.

They are supportive, competitive, encouraging, and inspiring in so many different ways that I often feel a sense of guilt when I choose to sit at home instead of strapping on my Brooks Ghosts for a quick jog. If they are doing it, why shouldn’t I? And as supportive, competitive, encouraging, and inspiring as this community of runners is they would say, “It’s okay, run tomorrow. Come back stronger. Just keep running.”

As my grandmother became sick with colorectal cancer, I found the run community an incredible home for me. I ran with the Young Involved Philly group runs all throughout her time in hospital and, subsequently, hospice care. Unbeknownst to them, I was able to work out my fear and frustrations of watching my role model die by falling in step with lawyers, social workers, teachers, and students alike. Speaking to complete strangers as we ran, learning bits about them and why they run as we passed through the streets of Philadelphia, helped my healing process immeasurably.

When my grandmother died of colorectal cancer on September 21, 2013, I found it my privilege and honor to raise money for the American Cancer Society in memory of her battle. My first half marathon, a feat I never thought possible, was one year after her death, September 21, 2014. To mark this anniversary and to honor what had become one of the most difficult years of my life, I set out to raise money so others would not have to suffer the same fate as my Nonie. Through the generous donations of friends and family, I was able to raise nearly $1,000 for ACS. I finished the race in 2:00:59.

I had an angel flying with me the whole way, encouraging me to put one foot in front of the other. The faces of the volunteers and supporters, the sound of the feet of those runners near me, pushed me to the finish line.

Unfortunately, several months later, my great-aunt, Nonie’s sister Elizabeth, was diagnosed and passed away from a sudden battle with pancreatic cancer.

I heard my calling again – the running community asking me, nudging me, reminding me of what we could do together, the power of those who carbo-load, who Gu, who “run clear.”

Again, I pledged to raise money for the American Cancer Society with DetermiNation Philly and the Broad Street Run. Together DetermiNators raised over $700,000 to help fight cancer; $700,000 to help give more birthdays to those struggling with this disease that touches us all.

On the day of the race, I wanted so badly to share my story. The story of my magical grandmother and her sister who was as good as a grandparent to me. I was not part of a team, nor was I living in Philly any longer, and so I failed to fit in. I introduced myself unsuccessfully to several people and didn’t get further than a handshake.

As I ran, I became upset and even angry. I raised money too, I thought. I have pain. I’ve suffered from cancer. I’ve lost people. Mostly, I was lonely.

I finished the race, with a decent time, despite injuries, and hurried home to my waiting family. They would at least know, I assured myself.

While waiting for a train, a middle-aged gentleman turned to me, stared me directly in the face and said, “How was your run?”

“Fine, considering I’m pretty injured,” I replied. “But, I did it for the right reasons, and that’s all that matters.”

“What reasons are that?” he asked.

“My grandmother and my aunt passed away from cancer,” I informed him. “I was running with the American Cancer Society.”

There it was. I felt a sense of relief, that sense of community I so loved and so longed for. I had shared my story and someone had listened. I belonged again.

We talked for almost an hour about his kid and wife, his job at Temple, my job at a community college. We talked easily and freely, united in our love of education and the written word, and our accomplishment on the race path. We had been brought together for unknown reasons and, though I may never see him again, I am eternally grateful for the man who took a chance to hear my story and share his with me.

So, I ask you, whether you’re a non-runner or a seasoned pro, to remember that each runner has a story. Before you roll your eyes at the 13.1 or 26.2 stickers on the bumper of someone’s car or poke fun at the lycra-and-spandexed-jogger on the sidewalk, remember that we all just want to belong. We are all searching for a community that can love and support us.

We all just want to tell our story and have someone listen. 

For some of us, running is that communion.

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