Running With Friends: Morning, Meditation #12

This morning, rain again, cold against our still dark windows, the last of summer wrung out of the atmosphere. The clouds over the river where I passed so many miles running with friends are muddy gray with the slightest suggestion of pink. Manhattan’s buildings, few windows lit this early, are ghostly shadows waiting to be reawakened.

Running With Friends is a new chapter in the 3rd Edition of A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World’s Happiest Man

Previous Chapter: What’s Special About Being Human?

A northerly wind is blowing the storm against our windows, and I’m relieved that I forgot my plan to leave them open to the fresh air overnight. There is also the reassuring hum of the city surrounding us, but windows closed, we miss much of that too. Outside, it’s thirty-six degrees, wet and breezy. Not conditions pleasant to invite inside, but when I can find a way to stay dry, a long poncho, for instance, I love being out in this weather. It’s special, even here in the Northeast.

It was running, especially running with friends, that taught me to love the experience of weather, all kinds of weather.

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For fifteen years, I trained as a distance runner. My speed never got more than a little above average, and eventually, my race times began to flatten and even to decline. Unable to legitimately anticipate improved performance in my next competition, I lost some of the motivation that got me up and out at 5:30 in all seasons, and when my running friends moved away, I lost even more.

I lost track of my friend Djibril, although we’re still connected, officially but not informally, on Facebook. I can keep track of his activities and achievements and observe the comments from his many friends, but our unique friendship ended. I’m sure he considered it as odd in certain respects as I did.

After being away for two years, I resumed running the trail we’d shared. Djibril and I returned immediately to a silly bit of play we practiced without my remembering anymore how it got started.

Djibril is a respected diplomat who has circled the globe, often working closely with Kofi Annan and other top United Nations officials, to promote international peace with an emphasis on sports. The proud citizen of an African nation, Djibril had been working from an office in New York City for a decade before I met him.

Over the years of our running as friends, we talked, measuring deep breaths as we ran along the river, about the challenges of a developing and contentious world. We talked more emotionally after the World Trade Center disaster unsettled the city around us.

I should also add, and I hope he doesn’t mind, that Djibril was the world’s second slowest runner. Not because he wasn’t fit. He is and was a big, solid man who also spent plenty of time in the weight room, but his before dawn habit of running with headphones tuned to BBC radio to get a head start on the news of the world slowed him to the newsreader’s pace.

Along with serious conversations about world events, his from an internationalist and Muslim perspective that was new to me, Djibril shared amusing stories from his experiences in running with friends. He maintained his running practice, regardless of where he woke up in the world. During a run through Islamabad where, apparently, distance running is not commonplace, he was greeted by applause as he passed the locals. Somehow, this friendly response seemed appropriate to the people of Pakistan who weren’t accustomed to African men bouncing by them on Nikes.

I’ve scraped my memory to retrieve whatever incident it was that got us into our unique play, without success. I think what probably started it was the silly sense I always have lurking behind whatever I’m doing. It must’ve triggered something similar hiding in this intensely serious, although exceptionally sunny man.

When my wife and I left New York for two years, Djibril must’ve been traveling during the last days of our preparations. I never had a chance to say goodbye or even let him know we were leaving. He always ran in the same direction along our four-mile loop, and since I varied mine, he was accustomed to passing me several times a week and having me catch up for conversation on others.

Even immersed in the BBC, he must have noticed my long absence. On a still dark April morning as I jogged along the East River for the first time in over two years, I saw Djibril’s unmistakable form jogging toward me along a remote, but well-lit part of the trail, pacing as slowly as ever, head cocked slightly as he concentrated on the broadcast.

I immediately jumped into our routine, increasing my pace to a sprint. I knew he recognized me when a smile swept his face, a laugh erupted from his throat, and he increased his speed to meet mine. As we swept by each other, we reached out and slapped hands. His giggle tapered off with him calling my name in delighted greeting. I could still hear his laughter as the distance between us lengthened, making us invisible to each other again in the dark.

What had I once done to influence this silly interaction with a serious, much accomplished man who might be sitting down with the Secretary General of the United Nations in a few hours? For that’s the truth of it–in our spontaneous, forgettable actions, we may call out from another a slice of personality no one else will ever see. I hope I remain infectiously happy enough to stimulate similar interactions, even giggling, with my victims.

I shared running with friends I’d have been unlikely to meet in our ordinary routines.

My much faster buddy, Sal, a Mexican research librarian, used to catch up with me from behind and get me going faster to stay apace, my need to breathe limiting our conversations. While we ran, Sal dominated our discussions, for obvious reasons, talking about his marathon experiences and wetting my appetite for that challenge. On his last attempt at completing twenty-six miles through five boroughs, he developed a creaky knee at mile sixteen and dropped out. By the next year, he was talking about trying again.

The New York City Marathon is a thrilling event from many perspectives. One that resonated with me was the congregation of runners from all over the world mingling in a congested pool at the starting points. Many arrived at the buses for Staten Island in their country’s colors and with flags waving. Sal’s friends from his running club in Mexico City came to New York toting, not only their colors, but Sal’s running gear that had remained in storage all year back home. Working for his consulate in a foreign country, Sal had few opportunities to run with his old friends, but they remembered him when it came time for the big challenge.

It surprised and disappointed me when he told me, after we’d known each other for a decade, that he was leaving New York to take a new post in Europe. He loved the city, but it was time to move on.

Sal, like Djibril, lived in a ‘running with friends’ corner of my life that I let go, important in that space and a stranger in all the others. When we hugged and said, “Good luck!” I knew I would never see him again, and I was grateful that we ran, not into, but alongside each other for so many miles.

Running With Friends is a new chapter in the 3rd Ediiton of A Million Different Things: Meditations of The World’s Happiest Man.

Next chapter: The Running For Life Game