As dedicated readers of these Tuesday newsletters are endlessly aware, I have been running with the same group of balding, paunchy, sweaty, middle-aged folks for a number of decades now. Older, slower, stiffer though we may be, our group has survived the disruption of hurricanes, the ravages of divorce, and half a dozen presidential campaigns. What has kept us together after all these years? (I'm going to eliminate "pure and utter madness" from among the answer choices.)
Clearly, we all share a predilection for this (allegedly) healthy pursuit. And, obviously, one of the "costs of entry" is the willingness to get up early and put in some miles. But there is no consensus about any other demographic: Our members do not share political affiliation, gender, race, social class or any other criteria. We are democrats or republicans; we are wealthy or middle class; we are religious observers or atheists; we have children or not.
One of us recently suggested that what brought us together and what keeps us together is a shared willingness to listen to endless repetition of the same bad jokes ("Did you hear the one about the interrupting cow?") Again, I am going to discount this possibility as too horrible to think about.
My insight into what keeps us together running through this murky swamp in the dark is our mutual conviction that the good of the group takes precedence over the well-being of any individual member. Our concern for one another takes precedence over our concern for ourselves. My buddy, Tim, for example has completed over 30 marathons and has qualified for the Boston Marathon many times over the course of 40 years of running. He is as fit as any 65 year-old on the planet. Yet he has never once begun a sentence with a first person pronoun. Every conversation with Tim begins with his inquiring, "How is your training coming along?" "When is your next event?" "Can I be of help to you in achieving your running goals?"
Lorna just returned from South Africa where she participated in a 56-mile event. (No, that is not a typo. At 56 miles, Comrades is among the toughest distance events ever.) Although she has a great deal of which to be proud-including having run marathons on all seven continents-she never brags. Like Tim, Lorna begins every conversation with "How is your running going?" "How can I be of help?"
Kelly, a cancer survivor, saw a shirt logo, "If you think training for a marathon is hard, try chemo." She thought for a moment and said, "No, when I was in the hospital, people brought me food and took care of me. Running the marathon was harder." Her good spirits and accomplishments inspire us all.
Those of us who run marathons in four and a half hours admire those who run marathons in three and a half hours: "How do you run so fast?" Those of us who run marathons in three and a half hours admire those of us who run marathons in five and a half hours. "How can you stay out on the course for so long?"
In a torrential rain storm in the days before cell phones, a half dozen of us showed up at the appointed place-in the downpour, in the dark. "I might not care about myself enough to get out of bed and work out in this deluge, but I'm not going to disappoint my buddies" was the unspoken consensus.
What do all these miles, meetings and conversations have to do with keeping our children safe in a world increasingly hostile to developing minds and bodies? A lifelong love of words begins with hearing cooing and giggling sounds at birth; a lifelong love of reading begins with being read to from an early age; and a lifelong love of healthful exercise begins with play, play, and more play from the time your beloved child first learns to walk.
If your young daughter is miserable at soccer (is the coach more concerned about winning than about developing skills? Are the other parents yelling "kill the ref"?) it might be time for some unstructured play. If organized sports are more organized and less sport, let's consider moving on to hiking, biking, running, or canoeing. Whatever you do, get those kids off the couch. (Did you throw away your TV like I told you to several columns ago?)
As with so many activities, peers are critical. It's hard to be the kid who likes tromping around in the outdoors if all the other kids want to hang out at the mall and slurp sucrose. I promise that there are still some children who want to join yours in looking up at the sky after an evening hike. My fondest wish for you and your kids is that you are able to help them find a group with the Tims, Lornas, and Kellys of your neighborhood.