Strangers in the park

I left work late yesterday, but needed to get in a 6-mile tempo run before my husband came home. Pressed for time, I jumped into my running clothes and drove to the park to run the loop around the reservoir. It was later than my usual time at the park. I’m used to seeing lots of people walking, biking, skating and working out around the lake. There were people there, but they were few and far between. I put on my music and resigned myself to the fact that most of my first lap would be a warmup. I would have to push to make sure that my overall time met my goal time.

So I turned on the ipod and tried to focus on my form and my pace. I really wasn’t paying much attention to who was on the track with me. I noticed an older couple and two small kids on a bench about 2/3 of the way around, but didn’t pay much attention. That first lap was tough. I wasn’t warmed up, I was tired and I wasn’t well prepared to be running a quality run.

The second lap was a little better. I was paying more attention to the people who were out with me. There was the couple on the bikes who were riding laps. There were the two women running together going the opposite direction. How could the one on the inside stand to be wearing long sleeves? There were the four women who were oblivious of anyone else. Not a problem, until I had to try to pass them on the most narrow portion of the track.

As I made the turn toward the last 1/2 mile of the loop, I made eye contact with the man on the bench. As I think of it now, the little boy next to him might have said something to him about me. You know, the little boy announcing that it was the same woman he saw earlier. I don’t know for sure. But the man’s eyes were smiling. He had a cane next to him, and looked like he might have had some medical issues, like a stroke. But his eyes smiled. I smiled back.  I went past him and I was still smiling. 

So, lap three.  I was picking up time now, and could see my average time coming down to something like my target.  I came around the turn.  The little boy began excitedly pointing to me, and the man and the woman were both smiling.  They had been waiting for me.  I smiled and said “1 more lap!”  About 50  meters later, I looked at my watch and found my pace had picked up.  I was going to make my goal pace.  As I crossed the 4.5 mile mark, I switched my watch to the virtual trainer setting.  I had 44 seconds to make up on the final 1.5 miles.  I needed to push.

They were waiting as I made the turn.  They were cheering me on.  I had cut the deficit to 7 seconds with 1/2 mile to go.  I have to admit I don’t finish well.  I usually have to play minds games with myself to keep moving.  But as I passed them, it was as though their enthusiasm jolted through me.  I called out to them and thanked them for being the best cheerleaders.   Again, their energy pumped through my legs.  I ended with a 14 second cushion.

As I passed that last time, a couple of women had joined the older couple.  I assume they were the mothers of the little boy and his sister.  They didn’t really know what to think of the cheering that went on as I passed.  In fact, they seemed a little annoyed.  That was sad.  But I didn’t focus on them.  I had the strangers who were my friends cheering me on.  Later last night, I tried to explain the experience to my husband.  It just didn’t seem as momentous as I told it.  Maybe it doesn’t to the reader of this blog.  For me, my connection with something bigger than myself comes through other people.  That’s hard to describe.   But I know I had that connection last night, and it came in the smile of a stranger on a bench in the park.  And for that, I am grateful.

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