There’s this guy I know.
You might know him.
He’s unhappy at work and at home, frustrated by life’s perceived slights, angry at the gradual loss of whatever athletic ability he may have had. His diminished self-esteem is locked up airtight in his two hours a week of pickup games and “adult rec” leagues.
He’s the guy who throws an unnecessary elbow going for a rebound, slides into home with spikes up, gives an extra shove in what was supposed to be a friendly game of touch football.
But there’s one sport he hasn’t ruined. I’ll get to that.
I remember this guy quite well. He showed up way too many nights. Everything would be going fine, fair play and all that, but inevitably he’d do something nasty. Anything from a borderline hard foul to a cheap shot that could cause serious injury.
It took me years to figure this out, but I realized I was leaving the court, the field or the rink every night totally depressed. It only takes one guy — this guy — but the effect was exponential. This is how I’m supposed to spend my Wednesday nights?
It wasn’t my own fading abilities, which I could grudgingly accept. There was still joy in the occasional game when I couldn’t miss a 3, made a nice grab in the outfield or scored a goal. But what I began to take home with me every night was the heavy burden of meanness.
Two examples from my 30s (oh, so long go), in which you’ll see a similarity:
At our regular “guys from work” Saturday basketball gatherings, one new hire wanted to show how tough he was. He’d guard way too aggressively, even put a hand between an opponent’s legs and, shall we say, nudge the genitals. He disappeared after he was fired for incompetence on the job.
For our pickup hockey sessions, we sometimes knew we’d be short a few skaters, so regulars brought friends of friends — a tough vetting process. One night, there was a fairly skilled player no one seemed to know who liked to poke opponents through the legs with his stick and pull up into the genitals.
He did this to me once (I always wore a cup, so no real harm done), and it was a huge mistake. Not because I was bigger or tougher, but because I was the one who reserved the rink and in charge of the group. He didn’t know that. I let it slide that night, but when he showed up to play the following week, I sat down next to him in the locker room and told him he was uninvited, effective immediately.
He didn’t argue or try to stay, but I expected him to be waiting for me outside after our ice time was up. He wasn’t. So much for Mr. Badass.
When I was in my 40s, my kids were playing soccer and loving it, so I gave it a try. I was terrible at it, but it was fun until I learned the “beautiful game” is not free of bad actors. During my fourth and final indoor season, an opposing player deliberately kicked one of our guys in the calf — hard — and, in another game, a skilled player deliberately kicked the ball into the face of one of my teammates. I was done.
But here’s what this guy couldn’t ruin.
As I gradually abandoned everything else, I still ran 20 miles a week, occasionally racing 5Ks and 10Ks (3.1 and 6.2 miles). With all that extra free time in my 50s I returned to running marathons, which I had been obsessed with in my younger years.
Running is not immune to bad behavior, of course, especially at higher levels of competition. But I have found nothing but camaraderie and genuine friendship over four decades on the roads. Men, women, young, old, fast, slow — it has always felt like we’re in this together. My best friends are runners (ages 47 to 65) whom I have gotten to know only in the past decade or so.
They are good people, thoughtful and kind. I like to think most runners are like that.
One member of our group shared a story (during a run, of course) of pulling up with calf trouble late in the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon about 15 years ago. A fellow runner from our town stopped to provide encouragement and electrolytes. That altruistic gesture kept the man from qualifying for the Boston Marathon — by less than a minute.
Knowing that the Good Samaritan was trying to get to the Holy Grail of Boston, my friend wrote to Mohawk Hudson race officials and explained how that minute was spent. They adjusted the man’s finishing time. Kindness, and training, got him to Boston.
Our running crew has many similar stories and memories from our training runs, post-run feasts and annual destination marathons. We have a good time and we look out for each other — sometimes in the post-race medical tent.
We accept our physical decline and embrace the slower pace that fosters deeper friendships. We give thanks for our health and for the privilege of being able to pound out mile after mile, year after year.
We have nothing to prove, to ourselves or to anyone else. And we have yet to see that guy out there running.