(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 2010.)
IT TOOK ME a long time to find a home in my hometown. I only finally found it because a few people here asked me to help them.
Mine isn’t just any town. It’s Eugene, Oregon, which rightly calls itself “TrackTown USA.” Some here would also have you believe that Eugene is the running capital of the known universe. By one measure, number of runners per capita, they might be right.
But for me, for too long, Eugene could have been just about anywhere that offered an airport to leave from, for speaking to groups of runners I would seldom see again. Eugene also offered a hideout to come back to, and write for readers who were largely invisible. I took almost no part in the vibrant running community here.
I ran alone and never raced here. I joined no running club and volunteered at no local race.
In a town with so many runners, it was easy to hide in plain sight. Too easy.
Only rarely would I talk with runners here. If they knew my name from some article or book, they would ask, “Are you visiting here to work on a story or to cover a race?” I’d laugh and say, “No, I’ve lived here since 1981.”
Living this way let me get lots of work done. But it also left a void, which became most apparent as I watched Eugene’s biggest race one July 4th.
Illness had kept me from making an annual appearance at a race in Iowa that year. Now, as the thousands of Eugene runners paraded past, I recognized few of them.
After commenting on this to my wife Barbara, she said, “You need to get out more often.” She didn’t mean out of town, but out in town, mixing with the locals. Her nudge led to a satisfying series of events that caused a steep decline in travel and a corresponding increase in non-writing work in my hometown.
I initiated none of these events. They resulted from the right person here in town asking the right question at the right time.
A graduate student was scheduled to teach a running class at the University of Oregon, but she had to pull out. When that slot needed filling quickly, my name came up.
“Let me think about it for a day and then get back to you,” I told Becky Sisley, the teacher doing the hiring. I was torn between a chance to teach and concern about how this extra duty might affect the writing and speaking.
I made the right choice by taking the assignment. This became my first real opening, ever, to think locally and act locally.
From the start in 2001, I loved the teaching. Since 2005 I’ve also coached marathon training teams. This happened again because someone, Bob Coll from the Eugene Running Company, asked me to do it at the moment when I was ready to accept.
Finally I know Eugeneans and am known as one myself. This was never so obvious as July 4th, 2008. I knew too many of the runners in that day’s big race to find all their faces and shout all their names. Finally I’ve come home to my hometown.
GUIDING TRAINING classes and groups doesn’t count as volunteerism because cash changes hands, if only in modest sums. Volunteers work for the purest of reasons, because a job needs to be done and is worth doing for free.
In 2008, I finally did this locally – at our town’s two biggest events, the Eugene Marathon and the 2008 Olympic Trials for track and field. Unpaid help was abundant at both, and you might think: Who wouldn’t want to help here, where runners and track fans abound?
Yes, Eugene has a rich tradition in this sport. But as recently as 2005 the new marathon in the Running Capital and the return of the Trials to TrackTown existed only as dreams of a few big-thinkers here.
Eugene needed what all cities need when launching an event: organizers willing to take chances, sponsors to fund that risk-taking, and volunteers to bring the dreams and plans to life.
Organizers in Eugene trusted that the essential battalions of unpaid helpers would follow, and they did. I joined them because two people asked, “Can you help?”
Janet Heinonen, editor of the Trials souvenir program, brought me onto her publishing team. Richard Maher, director of the marathon, solicited my help with the speakers’ program.
In the massive scale of the Trials, my contribution was minuscule. I wrote several short, unbylined articles – for free because everyone else donated their services. Kenny Moore, the sport’s best-known (and best-paid) writer contributed his lead article at no charge because volunteerism was the spirit of this event.
The same spirit moved the 2008 Eugene Marathon. As a two-time Olympian, Dathan Ritzenhein could command a hefty fee for any appearance, and could afford to turn down any that didn’t pay enough. But as a Eugenean he agreed to speak fee-free at the expo, then doubled the next morning by firing the starting gun.
Speaking as a late-arriving volunteer, my message at the Portland Marathon’s race-directors conference later that year was: Don’t be too shy or proud to ask that most flattering of questions: “Can you help me?” People love be asked, love to feel needed, love the feeling afterward that they gained more than they gave.
Now, finally, I know this feeling. My message to you runners is: Hold up your volunteering hand even before being asked. Don’t miss your chance, as I did for too long, to help out in your own hometown.
Photo: My local volunteering began, belatedly, at the Eugene Marathon.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner's World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]