Ahh, the start line. The wondrous exhilaration, the sweaty palms, and the fluttering heart that make you want to do it over and over again, to push yourself to a new goal, to rub elbows with kindred running spirits, to reflect upon how you even reached this point in the first place.
For me, the start line is about breathing it all in. It’s an extension of my many miles of solo reflective runs. I never make friends here. It’s a hard place to do so anyway, or so I thought.
That all changed just over a year ago.
Standing at the start of a small local 5K I had never run before, I waited for the gun to go off. It was a gorgeous summer day and I was excited. An older gentleman who had run this race before sparked a conversation with me, explained the hills with artistic detail, and reminisced about the portfolio of race experiences he had accumulated in quite a few years of running. I learned that his name was Joe, he was 80 years old, and was a Long Island transplant – my favorite type.
At the sound of the gun I wished Joe luck and we parted ways. I finished a good 10 minutes ahead of him and cheered him on as I saw him trudge through the finish line. He was 80 after all, and it was a hot day. But, he was no less determined than myself.
I came to see Joe at the two subsequent 5Ks that rounded out this series and we each won awards in our respective age groups. We shared running stories, memories of the various courses we ran, and nightmares of injuries we had suffered as a result of the sport. Despite our age difference we had a lot in common.
As autumn came and went and the long upstate winter set in I raced less. My frequent meet ups with Joe became few and far between. Yet, I found myself continually wondering how he was doing without knowing how to get in contact with him.
Joe and I briefly crossed paths at a 4-mile race in March. It was my first race since the previous fall and I was a bit rusty. We exchanged “hellos” and “good to see yous” but it was so crowded that we did not have time for much else.
I had only met Joe at a handful of races, but I became fond of him. He always showed up alone although he had several running acquaintances. He always wore the same shirt and the same pair of white shoes. Sometimes he sported several Band-Aids on his balding head, looking roughed up on occasion. Was he okay? I never had the opportunity to ask and it wasn’t my place to. We never spoke about whether he was widowed, lived alone, or if he had children to spend his days with. All I really knew about him was his love for running.
When the Hilltown Triple Crown race series came around again at the beginning of this month I was excited. I knew Joe would be there. I was eager to see how he was doing after all of these months. But as luck would have it I opted to forego the first race for an extra day spent in Lake Placid on vacation. I deliberated this decision for a while but an extra day spent in the mountains was something I didn’t want to pass up. Even so, I was bummed that I wouldn’t be seeing my friend that weekend.
And then, as if by happenstance, I received one of the loveliest pieces of mail. At first, I didn’t recognize the return address and then my mind jumped to conclusions. I tentatively opened the letter.
I was speechless. I read the note several times over, a smile beaming across my face. The first three words jumped out at me each time.
“Are you ok?”
An 81-year old man was asking a 34-year old if she was okay. Oh, the irony.
Joe left his phone number in that note and I called him the next day. Sometimes, it’s the simplest, old-fashioned niceties that mean the world to someone.