Finishing Kick: Politics on the Run

By April 28, 2006Running Times Magazine

A Lesson in Leading

By Rachel Toor

As featured in the April 2006 issue of Running Times Magazine

Recently some of my college students—freshmen, learning to write—endured waking too early, dressing in layers, and paying money they didn’t really have to toe the line at a local 10K that benefits a women’s health clinic.

I arrived at the race rabid—foaming, spitting, nothing like my usual calm, dispassionate self. I ran into my friend Dean, handsome in a straw cowboy hat, directing the race with his four kids, all under four feet tall, hanging onto his long legs.

“There are protesters on the course,” I said, like a psychotic describing pink hyenas hiding in the closet.

“Yeah,” he said, giving instructions to a volunteer, directing runners toward the start, and petting one of his kids on the head. “They show up every year.”

Then he focused on me. “Don’t engage them, Rachel. It’s what they want. Just don’t say anything.”

My friends know me too well.

When I met up with my students, we talked about the protesters. I eased into didactic mode and said that even if we found them hateful, they had a right to be there; that’s what free speech is all about. Martha asked if she could flip them off as we ran by. Maybe it wasn’t the right—the teacherly—thing to do, but I said sure. As long as she did it quietly.

We all had fun. After the race, we went back to my apartment, and they cooked brunch and made fun of my lack of domesticity.

But I was steamed about having my race tainted by politics. It wasn’t the first time: Each year, at the Philadelphia marathon, protesters hold disgusting signs that make ridiculous statements, at least to my feminist, commie-rat way of thinking. Each year, thinking about it makes me want to spit.

I’m no rube; I know that politics infiltrates our lives. Mostly I agree with the quote frequently, though perhaps incorrectly, attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to death your right to say it.”

But that doesn’t mean I don’t get pissed off.

Then I thought about Glen.

A lifetime ago, in North Carolina, we were running buddies. We often traveled together to races. He usually won overall; sometimes I age-grouped. My first experiences of racing are wrapped in a wiry, muscular, Glen-shaped package.

One spring he found out about the inaugural edition of a 10-mile race in Washington, DC. We wanted to go and run it. But the race was sponsored by Colt, makers of semi-automatic weapons and other nasty pieces of business, and that made us both uncomfortable. We debated for a long time, and then Glen came up with a plan.

We went to DC. In the afternoon we wandered around the race expo, around booths that showed off the newest models of running shoes, apparel, and guns; then we crossed the street to Arlington National Cemetery, and strolled in that sober, green field with its crop-like rows of identical, austere markers.

At 0800 the next morning General Shelton, then head of the Joint Chiefs, fired the gun to start the race. I enjoyed the scenery of the course, but Glen ran hard, as he always does. A couple of Kenyans beat him, but still, he finished in the money.

Afterward, watered and warmed down, we sat on the grass on a cherry-blossomed day, chatting, waiting for the awards. Glen was nervous, more so than before the race. I said it would be fine.

When the man with stars on his chest called his name, Glen walked across the stage to collect his check. Then he asked for the mike. The organizers looked at each other, confused, but handed it over.

Glen took a deep breath, held up the check, and said in a voice as even as his stride, “I just want the running community to know that I am donating my earnings to the DC-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.”

Apparently we weren’t the only runners who felt ambivalent about the politics of doing this race; a boisterous cheer went up from the crowd. Glen gave the mike back and rejoined me on the grass, his heart pounding harder than it had running 5:30 miles.

I always knew that Glen was an excellent runner, a tough competitor. At the time he was finishing a Ph.D. in public health. His advisor was a jogger who raced, but Glen kept quiet about his own running. He feared that if his boss knew that Glen was a serious runner, his view of him as a serious academic would diminish.

That day, amid cherry blossoms and Greek Revival, I saw a different side of my running buddy. I always knew he was a soft-spoken counterpoint to my own hot-headedness, but I’d never before seen him as a role model.

My political responses, like those of many people, are reflexive. I complain about problems rather than try to find creative solutions. Sometimes I feel hopeless and don’t believe there are any solutions to our nation’s woes. So I surround myself with folks who think like me, and when I’m faced with opposing viewpoints, I get mad. Or dismissive. And do nothing.

That day, in the southern humidity, with his gentle, southern humility, Glen showed us all a middle path; he took the Buddhist trail between self-indulgence and denial.

He didn’t win the race. But that day, in the locus of American politics, my running buddy led the way