Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Meet and Greet

(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

May 1999 (retitled in the magazine). We met as runners do on a sidewalk, passing briefly within arm’s length of each other. As is my habit, I greeted her with the single word, “Morning.”

She looked back at me, from the corners of her eyes and without turning her head, and said nothing in return. This was the look she might have given a homeless drifter gone too long between washings and coming too close as he bummed spare change. It was a don’t-bother-me look.

This isn’t the way one runner greets another. Or it wasn’t how we used to signal such meetings in a more innocent era.

The custom of greeting every runner who passes, just because he or she happens to run, is obsolete. If not gone, the brief but friendly exchange between runners is fading. And that’s too bad.

When runners were few, we all knew each other — if not by name then by our reasons for running and our approaches to it.

But we didn’t stop to talk. That too was part of the custom — not to interrupt anyone’s run for extended chit-chat. A simple word or two in passing — or just an unspoken smile, wave or nod of recognition — would do. A small gesture was enough to say we weren’t alone, but shared experiences and secrets with a wider community of runners.

Then the running population exploded. The streets and sidewalks grew more crowded with us, and the runners more diverse in background and purpose. Running now looks more like a city than a community.

Much has improved with the sport’s growth. But one unfortunate casualty has been the sense of connection between runners who don’t know each other.

Rarely these days does another runner initiate a greeting. Eye contact even comes grudgingly.

I’m a creature of old habit, though, and still greet every runner I meet. Nine in 10 respond, most with a surprised look of: Who’s that, and how does he know me?

The woman who touched off this story, the one who refused to acknowledge me, is the exception. She and a few others like her cast looks of irritation (usually by men who don’t want their run interfered with) or suspicion (usually by women who wonder why a strange man would speak to them). To give a greeting and receive nothing in return is discouraging and a little embarrassing.

I respond with another comment — louder than before in case the first went unheard and because I’m now shouting back over my shoulder. It’s along the lines of: “And you have a nice day too.”

This seldom has any effect on the reluctant. But it lets me feel I’m doing my part to keep alive one of the finer old customs of running.

The greeting of one runner meeting another makes our world a warmer place. It keeps our sense of community intact. It says to each other: I know why you’re here, and I’m happy that you are.

2018. So what if this labels me as odd, old and old school? I still greet every runner I meet, even when I’m walking.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from 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.]

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