International Language of Running

A nod.  A wave. Perhaps a slight movement of the head or mouth…whatever the case, runners know that there is a certain “look” that is given when passing fellow runners.  Like two dogs passing each other on leashes, as runners we look at each other straight in the eyes, but do not say a word.

Depending on the state of each runner’s bliss or pain… these exchanges can be pleasant, friendly, indifferent, different, hostile, or a combination of all.   Or perhaps there is no exchange, and you are left nodding your head to the shadow of a runner who has left you in the dust, either miffed or unscathed.  Whatever. We runners are a touchy bunch, and a greeting while running is neither consistent nor predictable.

Mothers pushing strollers are predictable. Generally, they will get and give a smile to passers by. Or they’ll subconsciously offer a look of total frustration to the tune of  “why did I sign up for this.” Grandmothers pushing strollers are even more predictable- rarely is anything but pride and pleasure communicated as Grandma passes with grandchild in tow.

But runners… one never knows what to expect when passing.  They wear their emotions on the sleeves of their windbreakers.  The status of their legs, current injury, stomach, psyche dictates the look they’ll give, if any. A runner can change his or her mood and subsequently their “look” with the pulling of their IT bands.

To the non-runner, this emotional roller coaster may seem hostile, rude, and as crazy as the sport itself.  I remember my mom saying once, “I have never once passed a runner that looks happy.” Obviously, she does not run. What non-runners do not understand is that the real language of running both is and is not communicated by the looks on our faces, the phrases that make it out of our mouths, the gestures we may make communicate to walkers, cars, dogs, and of course fellow runners.

Runners have a language of their own.  It is the language of just being… out there, on the roads, the sidewalks, the trails, the sand. True runners have a sense of “thank God I am getting my run in,” as they know that happiness, and being able to run is not always guaranteed.

And while the looks between runners may vary, what doesn’t change is the mutual acceptance of each on their journeys.  On a recent trip to Italy, I found myself experiencing this international language, exchange between fellow runners.

What I noticed was what I had suspected the night before as I set my running clothes out carefully by the door- I wasn’t going to have a whole lot of company on the streets of Florence.  In Milwaukee, had I been running at this hour, I would have passed well over ten runners. Here, I didn’t know if I’d pass anyone, so along with my iPod playlist, I also got to listen to my mom’s greatest hits blaring in my head.  “It is dangerous to run so early. Be careful. Take your ID. Bring some money for a cab. Be ever vigilent.”

However, all of the years of her message had sunk in, and even though I’m crazy, I do evaluate my areas before running for safety.  I was desperate, but not dumb.  So I left my hotel room that day, knowing a course ahead of time, armed with Euros, a watch, my hotel address, and ID.

At first I admit the run was a bit creepy.  While it was light and people were out, I was still not in tune with Italy’s flow of  life.  I was convinced that each cobblestone street corner would lead me straight into a truck full of international kidnappers.  Quickly knowing the need to shake that thought, I focused on the absolute bliss and relief that I was experiencing after three days of sitting on planes, trains, and automobiles.  That run was the fix that was preventing me from becoming an international threat.

So, as I started out, navigating the cobblestone roads to the bridge that the hotel staff guaranteed I’d find… I  ran with purpose and drive… confident that neither the  scolwing newspaper man nor the mean old lady at the corner café would deter me from my run.

After getting lost just six or seven times, nearly spraining my ankle on the uneven road exactly five times, and almost getting hit by a nun in a  mini van (swear to God!), I was there. A two mile stretch of sidewalk overlooking one of Florence’s most beautiful rivers, I had found the perfect spot to get my groove on. It was also nicely padded with morning traffic to assure me I had company and would not be abducted by an Italian mobster .  And, as I found my rhythm, miles and miles away from home, something magical began to happen.

With each step my fix was met, and the adrenaline pumped through my veins.  I felt better, my legs coming alive again.  Suddenly, the sights and sounds I had witnessed the day before on a leisurely walk through the streets had new meaning. I was looking at them through the eyes of a runner.   It is a vantage point that no aerial shot, no helicopter tour, no birds eye view can compete with. This view takes in  perhaps the same sights offered by these vantage points, but they are a completely different experience.

As I saw the antiquated buildings, the cobblestone streets, the beautiful cathedrals, I saw them from a place that I was completely happy. I was doing two of the things I love most… running, and exploring new places.   While running, I was not a tourist, not an American. I was a runner. This was made blatantly clear to me when I passed perhaps the only other runner out on the streets of Florence that day.  He was a man, mid fifties perhaps, who was clearly Italian.  I saw him from blocks away and was excited to see another of “my people.”

As we got closer to each other, I could see that he too was studying me, wondering who this kindred spirit was. When we were close enough to speak, we did not say a word. We simply locked eyes in the way that all runners do- with a slight smile and nod.  Then we simply went about our way, both knowing that we had said all there was to say.

R & R

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

R & R

Just over a week ago, I completed another marathon. A marathon- the height of runnerchica inspiration, one would think. As I started the race, I had a few things I wanted to accomplish that day.  I did have a time goal, which I mentioned to my brother prior to the race. He commended me on that, but reminded me that the true aim of any marathon should be to enjoy the experience, and to finish. Good point.  I added that to my list of goals, the main one being to pick up some inspiration for a new runnerchica. Maybe I’d discover a new way to look at marathons, maybe I’d learn valuable life lessons on the road.  Maybe I’d find a way to get philosophical with the concept of energy gels or body glide. I was pretty desperate for material.

A beautiful, crisp, sunny race day set the stage for that perfect AHA moment to fuel my writing. I tried to “feel it” and use the sights, sounds, and moments of the run to conjure up something good. Mile after mile, when I wasn’t thinking of the mysterious new pain in my right leg, or the throbbing of the blister that had exploded in my left shoe, I was concentrating deeply on ideas for this column. Again and again, my mind went blank. Even crossing the finish line failed to inspire. The wall of the marathon had  “Wonder-Twin Powered” itself into a wicked writer’s block.

So I left that day with nothing… nothing, that is, except a bit of an injury. The annoying “is that a vice grip around my shin?” I felt throughout the marathon did not miraculously go away post race. I woke up on Monday, unable to flex my foot. Fear penetrated my bones, my being. Was my running career OVER? Would I ever run, or WRITE about running again?!?! I imagined 18 stress fractures running up and down my shin, side lining me for months and months. Later in the day I decided to consult my two favorite PT’s, who happen to be married. In their living room, they each evaluated my leg, then spoke in some secret language that mixed husband/wife lingo with medical jargon. I had no clue what they were saying.

“CAN I RUN AGAIN?!?  IS IT BROKEN?!?”  I was desperate for answers. No, they were quite certain it wasn’t a stress fracture. It was actually tendonitis.

Now, from experience, I knew that when you put an “Achilles” in front of the word “tendonitis” it is definitely not good.  I paused, and slowly asked… “Is this bad? What does this mean?” Translation- when the hell could I run again?

They assured me that with Motrin, rest, and ice, I’d be as good as new in a few weeks.

Unfortunately, for this idiotchica, I down sized the weeks to days, and was running just a week later. After all, I hadn’t had pain for a whole day. As I laced my shoes, my husband looked at me as if I were crazy and asked just why I was going for a run.

“I have to run…. I need inspiration for runnerchica.”  And I was out the door before he could comment.

So I set out. A mile into it, my leg felt good. No pain! Woo hoo! Yet my bliss was short lived as I thought about the article I needed to come up with. I had not produced new material for nearly two weeks. Now, I know this has probably not been a hardship for those who visit this site. But for me, producing weekly articles had become something I felt I needed/wanted to do. As I ran, my mind raced with thoughts of how “blocked” I had become, and how much time I had taken off. Too much time…

Then I stopped. Literally. My leg was hurting again, and I didn’t want to screw it up more. As I hobbled to a park bench to sit down, it all started to become clear. Hello, your leg is hurting because you need to STOP. Give yourself a break, let time and nature heal something that had been caused by months of overuse.  Similarly, I realized that I wasn’t thinking of any grandiose ideas for my writing, because I needed a break from that too. I had literally ran and written my heart out for months and months- why was I being so hard on myself for a little R & R? Why did I feel I couldn’t stop and smell the roses for a bit?

As I walked farther, I realized that I had a hard time giving myself a break because the world around me… does not take breaks.  Ever. The world, in general, is not a big promoter of breaks, or slowing down.  The world is not patient either. This might be due to the fact that it is full of things we can access at the blink of an eye- internet, emails, texts, day surgery, fast food, fast cars.  With all of this infiltrating our lives, sometimes we tend to believe that EVERYTHING should be available instantly, constantly, and continually.

If Lasik surgery can improve vision in minutes, why does it take weeks to clear up pink eye? If a mother is sent home a day after giving birth, then why the heck isn’t she feeling better two weeks later? Why does it take five minutes to decide you like the culture of a company yet months and months to adjust to it? If we just took one day off of work with the stomach flu then why, by golly, are we still feeling lousy three days later?

The truth of it is, we have so many instant buttons we can press in our daily lives, that we have come to believe that there’s an instant button to fix everything. And when we don’t have access to that instant button, we get frustrated.  This frustration sometimes makes us push even harder, and in a self-perpetuating cycle of doom… we find ourselves right back where we started. In my case, feeling exactly the way I did one day post race, with my shin wrenching with pain. All because I listened to the “go-go-go” pulse of the world rather than the voice in my head that was pleading with me to give it a rest.

In this world of many messages, may the ones that reach you the fastest be those that are closest to your heart. The faster you realize this, the more time you will have for you.


I thought about connections the other day, after an old friend “Face-booked” me.  It was a total shock to hear from her.  I believe the last time I saw her we were 18, at some party neither of our parents knew about. If memory serves me correctly, we were gathered in a field surrounded by beer cans, other minors, and a bonfire.  Not a great combination. I think it’s safe to say we’ve both come a long way since then. Then, thanks to the wonders of the world wide web- BOOM!  We were suddenly reconnected.  Amazing.

After catching up on what happened since the bonfire and subsequent near parked-car explosion (everything turned out okay, mom and dad), I thought about all of the ways I connect with various people, groups, businesses, etc.  I realized that my Iittle white Mac is really my central link to many, many of my “people.” My address book, and I’m sure yours, is testament to the unbelievable network of people available instantly- anywhere, anytime.

While there are probably cobwebs (or maybe web-webs) on some of those addresses, many are used often.  Think about all of the emails that you send each day. If you’re like me, I bet many messages are sent to relatives and close friends.  Maybe even people you live with.  Other recipients may be in the cubicle next to you, or in the house next door. Human logic begs- Why the hell don’t you just go talk to that person?

Taking that whole question out of the mix, the bottom line is that the connections made through email are different from those that occur in real life.  Perhaps these connections exist on their own within the confines of cyberspace, perhaps they enhance “real life” relationships with these people. The bottom line is that these messages should not valued solely for their ability to keep us connected to those around us. These messages are often much more honest and brave than anything we’d say to our people in real life. (And whether or not that’s good or bad should be judged on a case by case basis…)

It’s interesting to consider what happens to these cyber conversations when they hit the real world. For me, when I do see these people in person, I notice a slight shift in dynamic.  Face to face is a bit different from keyboard to keyboard. When I finally talk to my cyber friends, there is bound to be an adjustment to how we relate.  Sometimes we’ll refer directly to our emails… Did you survive that day from hell?  Are things going better with your evil boss? Did you finally ditch the jerk?  When we hear these questions, we realize just how much of our lives we freely share while at our computers. In fact, sometimes it’s so shocking to discuss these things in the real world that we revert to small talk until we’re back to the safety of our internet alter egos.

To be sure, this network gives us an interesting freedom of communication that knows few boundaries. While it would be odd to pick up the phone and call an ex boyfriend/girlfriend or new love interest at 2 a.m., with email you can safely craft a clever message in hopes of a future connection.  Or, let’s say you want to ask your boss for some time off or explain a difficult work dilemma… send an email. Much easier than face to face communication.  The internet really can be the ticket to communicating in all sorts of situations.

After all of this focus on internet connections, though, I thought about the real life connections that we make each day, and how unique each of those can be.  These are the connections you have with the people you work with- perhaps the person you see everyday at 9 a.m. as you both go for your third cup of coffee. Or, the co-worker you are friends with simply because you both started on the same day, and grew through the ranks together.   Similarly, there are connections you have with friends simply because you are in the same stage of life- dating, having kids, going to school… circumstances that bind you, but can change. And, finally, there are the deep seeded connections made early in life that last through the years.  The list of people we connect with could go on and on.

I recently thought of these connections when an injury had me out of my running circle. Yes, I still emailed my friends and communicated with them.  But I felt an interruption in my connection. I didn’t like hearing about running and races and training when I was stuck on the elliptical at the gym. It was sort of like being the one kid at the lunch table who wasn’t going to the slumber party that all of the others were talking about. Everything you’re saying sounds great and I’m happy for you, but since I’m not going, could we please talk about something else?  It’s sometimes hard to relate to people when the “common connection” is altered.

And then I thought back to my friend, who had emailed me out of the blue. At one time, we had a pretty strong connection. But then time and place changed, and we moved on. 18 years later, we can still relate to the experiences we shared, and where we both came from.  This is the beauty of connections- they are designed to get us from point A to point B, and maybe back to point A again. When the co-worker you started with leaves the company… that relationship is bound to change, maybe even disappear.  Or, when your coffee clutch buddy (betrays you) gives up caffeine, you may need to find a new Starbucks junkie to confide in. Yet, all of these relationships serve a purpose for a moment in time.

For me, my injury is gone, and I am back on the streets with my running people. I no longer make voodoo dolls of them when they talk about running :), as I am right there with them discussing mileage, Gatorade, and other important topics.  And, I am less concerned about the possibility of future injuries separating me from this group because I know that inevitably this run connection will shift. I hope not for a very long time, but when it does, I am confident that another connection will be right there waiting.  I’m sure there will be some great group of knee-and-hip replacement ex-runners that I’ll be able to join.

Whether your connections last a lifetime or just a few moments, may their purpose be clear to you as you go from one road to the next.