There’s a poster that hangs on the wall of my partner’s home. Five pencils lay in a row: four with their sharpened tips up and one, nestled in between, eraser’s head up. “Individuality,” it reads. “Don’t be afraid to be different.” It always makes me smile, but not in the way he thinks. Perhaps it’s our collective insistence on individuality that makes us one and the same?
That’s not a bad thing.
Some years ago, when I was living in Washington, D.C., I decided that I wanted to run a marathon. You know, to be unique in that way. Or at least as unique as each person participating in the more than 500 marathons taking place worldwide every year.
I was not too sure I could, however. I was as overweight as I ever was, with my commuter bike as my sole claim to a fitness routine. I had not run in years.
But once in my mind, I could not dislodge the thought. So I started my marathon journey where I could: behind a desk. I searched out running magazine articles for information on the right running gear (and bought the right socks, shoes, shorts, and shirts based on their advice, of course). I bought books on best practices in marathon training, specializing in the mental discipline and the role of positive thinking. I discovered maps and lists of the region’s training routes (which I dutifully biked, passing the city’s whole running population along the way, it seemed).
Eventually, perhaps I was still not so sure that my personal quest would be achieved alone, I decided that I would join a local training group. The one I joined had a unique selling proposition, mind you: run and walk your way to injury-free marathon success.
Despite the marathon myth of individual achievement, I found that this marathon training program, like so many others, relied heavily on groups. That is, we were encouraged to work with others to achieve our goals. Find the right pace group. Trust in proven mental and physical training methods during the week. Train with the group each Saturday morning. Enjoy each other — not your headphones — as a way to make it through the growing heat of the day.
There’s no denying that each of us came with other interests that set us apart. But there wasn’t an exhortation to “be different.” Instead, we were to find the ties that bind us and hold on to them to pull each other along.
And that’s how we did it for months. Groups of us — mine not especially fast, mind you — running along the trails of metropolitan Washington, D.C.
At the end of that summer, I ran the Virginia Beach Rock-and-Roll Half Marathon, back near my hometown. There, too, were my fellow “rugged individuals” making their way through the streets together. Of course, we runners were not alone. Our families were there. Local bands were set up along the route. Volunteers staffed stands from start to finish, passing out water, aid, and high fives to runners in need. And then there were the cheering crowds, local folks who just wanted to be there because it felt good to drink, jam, jump, and shout as all those dreams flowed by.
These days, my races tend to be behind a desk. My fingers run across the keyboard as the clock ticks and tocks. I usally do this for work and, as you’ll remember from my last entry, for this month’s novel-writing marathon. I am as slow at this race as I was at that earlier one, mind you. Run. Walk. Run.
But in all this daring to be different, perhaps we need to take a moment to celebrate the crowd. Of being one among thousands. One and the same.
This week, be daring! Run that race.