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.

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