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Everyone Who Races Wins [On The Contrary][Best of FaN]

I wrote this the first week of April 2012, almost a month to the day I was scheduled to run my first marathon. The good news is, I finished. The better news is, hammering my legs for 26.2 miles for nearly 4 hours in the hot May sun of Pittsburgh might have occasioned some post race fatigue (and pepperoni pizza), but it only deepened my enthusiasm for running races. So while now I’m a bit wiser and more seasoned runner than the person who wrote this, I still feel like discovering running was like finding a great secret that I immediately want to share with everybody. And for someone that is supposed to be a “contrarian,” it’s nice to build up something rather than cut it down. -Joe Rusin 7/29/2012

Spring is in the air. It’s also on the calendar, and for many allergy suffers it is up their nose. As the days grow both longer and warmer, there is an increased sense of social pressure to get outside and enjoy the freedom of getting outside and moving. The seasonal starting gun has fired.

It’s the perfect time to sign up for an organized race. Most people tend to fall into one of two categories—those who run, and those who don’t. Those who do tend to overemphasize the positive impact running can have on a life, obsess over mileage and personal bests, know what hill repeats are, and view a race as a fun event. Those who fall on the other side of the divide tend to view running as hard, boring work that is not fun, and might even be harmful to joint health. I have at one point been on both sides of this divide. For a long time I thought of myself as too heavy and awkward to run, and even if I could the prospect seemed like the hardest form of work and far from any notion of fun.

Then I ran a race.

Now to be fair, I didn’t just sign up for a 5K and go. There was a certain amount of getting into shape and finding inspiration in reading Christopher McDougal’s “Born To Run.” Even when I felt fairly confident in running three miles, I was still very reluctant to pay money to do something so hard and potentially humiliating as running a race. I still bore memories of being the slow kid growing up, always being left behind in the elementary school “races,” and always forced to rely on quick tag-backs whenever playing tag, since there was never any hope in running down my quicker peers. So the concept of voluntarily entering a running event as an adult seemed like self-abuse, and not the fun kind Father Simeon warned about. For some reason, though, I felt compelled to try it just once to see what all of the hubbub was about.

I was glad I did. The experience of the race was completely different from any memories of painful forced track meets. It was much more like a great early morning party (most races take place before 10 am, though there are exceptions). Sure, I saw the hard core runners there with their 0.3% body fat, but I also saw people in their 60s jogging around, groups of friends walking, and lots of people who looked a lot like me. And when the thing started, I found I wasn’t trying to “beat them.” I was sharing an experience with them—an experience of hard work to be sure, but also one that of incredible joy. It was like a celebration of movement, like dancing at a club, but without the alcohol, dim light, and loud music to numb the senses. I learned that the so-called “natural high” is a very real thing.

All kinds of people come out to race...even Ancient Romans

Races bring out a little bit of everyone. Ostensibly a competition, but for most people who weren’t born in Kenya or competed in track championships, there is little to no chance that you will be the one to cut the tape at the finish line. That’s ok, because it never really feels like you’re running against other people anyway. It’s yourself you are challenging, and everyone around you seems to be there to lift you up. From the people running the race alongside you to friends, family, and other spectators who amazingly line the course and cheer you on, everyone—EVERYONE—wants to you to do well. There is an overwhelming rush of positivity throughout a race. The good vibes are enough to carry your legs that last hundred yards to the finish line. And whether you finish near the front of the pack or you’re one of the last people to struggle across the line, everyone who competes is proud of you—and most of them will come up to you and say it.

Races are held all the time, and range in distance from 5 kilometers (about 3.1 miles) the mythic marathon (26.2 miles—like all those bumper stickers say). Most people in reasonable shape can run/walk a 5K, though it’s still a good idea to do a little training ahead of time to get used to the movement. Most races also are done for charity, so it’s easy to find one you’d like to support. They also afford you the opportunity to go places you might not normally have access to. In my limited racing career I’ve hoofed down the “Seinfeld” New York City street set on a Hollywood back lot, zipped around Seattle’s space needle, and trotted onto the field and jumbotron at the Steelers home in Heinz Field. Even just getting to run through the streets of your hometown can be a rush.

I realize this has turned into a heavy-handed self-encouragement spiel about the virtues of running. I really don’t mean to be preachy. But as the author of a column entitled “On The Contrary,” I often find myself cutting down things other people like, or at least trying to temper enthusiasm. In short, I too often go negative. This is something I can’t go negative on. The feeling of finishing a race is one of the few accomplishments that you can truly own completely. You can have help in the training, and hopefully lots of encouragement from others, but deep down it is you and you alone who has fought the fight to get to the finish line. You can run, you can walk, you can pedal or roll, but when you finish there is no feeling bad about it. Everyone who races wins.

Another racing always get a t-shirt.

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