‘Tis the season for thankfulness. And pumpkin pie. And turkey. And cranberries in a can. And festive inflatable lawn decorations. And the occasional highly suspect and implausible story from Uncle Steve that has just enough factual validity to be disconcerting. But mostly thankfulness.
It was early when I started my run—much earlier than the general populace prefers to start their mornings—and I had a long run ahead of me. In the spirit of the season, I thought I’d make a list of all the things I’m grateful for as a runner. I imagined it would be a “Top Ten” list of sorts, with a variety of items ranging from the humorous to the profound—PRs, flat marathon courses, trail runs, crunchy leaves, age group awards, and toilet paper in park bathrooms, just to name a few.
Instead, twenty miles later, I had a different list altogether.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Rarely does the sport give us what we expect. And so, post-run coffee in hand, cozy in my favorite sweatpants and hoodie, I began writing.
I am thankful for the old men in the diners, I wrote, the ones who read newspapers at the counter and drink coffee out of stained and yellowing mugs...
I am thankful that I know they always sit at the same stool and order the same breakfast, something hearty and greasy like eggs and toast and bacon and sausage, just like in the good old days. I am thankful that they read real newspapers—not headline feeds on iPhones and iPads—the kind of newspapers that require a four-foot wingspan and the ability to decipher coded language, such as “…continued on D4.”
I am thankful for their newsboy caps and flannel shirts and khaki jackets (if I were an old man, the first thing I’d do is go out and get myself a khaki jacket), and that every time I run by the diner and look through the glass windows and see them, I am reminded of my Papa. He was a captain in the United States Army during World War II and he fought on the Pacific Front. My sister and I would go to his house every year at Christmas and, just when we had finished an afternoon of baking sugar cookies with Grandma, he would pull out his uniforms so we could dress up in them before gathering around the kitchen table where he would tell us stories about the war. He always ended his narrative with great solemnity, pulling up his sleeve to reveal a gruesome scar on his arm, just below his shoulder, where he had been shot. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I learned the scar was from his polio immunization.
I continued writing.
I am thankful for white puffs of breath in the bone-chilling air of early morning, a vaporous greeting in the silent, secret language of distance runners… I am thankful for their black tights and Nike-swooshed gloves and reflective jackets. I am thankful for the half-frozen water bottles girding their waists. I am thankful for their flushed cheeks and watering eyes and red noses. I am thankful they understand the physical shock of venturing forth in sub-freezing temperatures only minutes after climbing out of a warm bed, and that the half-dazed hello we exchange as we pass is as heartfelt as a boisterous “Godspeed!” I am thankful that though we are running in different directions, we are running towards the same goal: a post-run shower and hot coffee.
I am thankful for sleepy city streets not yet busy with the frenzy of the day, for the occasional car that percolates through drowsy intersections… I am thankful for the way the driver waits patiently for me to cross, and how we smile with friendly familiarity, even though we’ve never met. I am thankful for empty sidewalks that aren’t completely empty, for the tiny yawns of activity from people scurrying in and out of cafes, carrying little brown bags of muffins or bagels or fruit-filled pastries. I am thankful for storefronts and window displays of shops that won’t open for several more hours. I am thankful I get to watch the world wake up.
I am thankful for the little girl and her dad putting up Christmas lights, and that the little girl sits on the front porch untangling the hopeless strands while the dad checks the light bulbs to make sure they still works... I’m thankful that they reminded me of when my dad and I would lug boxes of bulbs from the garage and spend the good part of a Saturday morning stringing lights from the roof. I’m thankful that we always hung the lights the day after Thanksgiving and with bellies full of turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie.
I am thankful for the older couple that starts every day with a morning walk... I am thankful that they walk hand in hand. I am thankful that they are like the winter sky—white and gray and faded, but deeply and forever faithful.
The list continued, and soon I was lost in the small moments that made up my twenty-mile run, the moments that make up my runs every day. Finally, however, I finished, noting one last gift for which I am—and forever will be—grateful.
I am thankful that running stops time. I am thankful that in an over-stimulated culture of hectic schedules, constant accessibility, chores, errands, work, and an ever-expanding to-do list, we have recourse to something that gives us time to think, to feel, to observe, to reflect. I am thankful that when I am running, I can’t do anything else. That when I am running, I feel completely still. That when I am running, the world slows. Yes, running stops time and lets me see what I may have otherwise taken for granted.
And for that I am thankful.