Publisher’s Point: The Smile Of The Fellow Traveler

By: Ali Elizabeth Turner

I have written a few times about the life lessons that have been hidden within the modality of a 5K race. For those of you who are new to this column, I am 67 years old and started participating in 5K races five years ago. I took the plunge, got “couch-to-5K training,” and it changed my life. I try to do one organized run each month during running season, and I love the challenge as well as the community. Most particularly, the transferable skills are all about doing things outside of one’s comfort zone, persevering, and the enormous satisfaction of completing something that stretches several limits.

About a week ago, I headed out to Joe Wheeler State Park for the re-scheduled Shady Lady 5K which had been originally slated for April but called due to weather. Lest you chafe at the term “shady lady,” the race had been named for the fact that it was largely for women, and it would be held in the woods, where it is, not surprisingly, mostly shady. It was sponsored by the League of Outdoor Women, who describe themselves as an outfit that is somewhat akin to being a Girl Scout troop for grownups.

I was up at 5, and as I do most mornings, I spent some time journaling and praying before I left. I had the sense that the Lord was going to be running with me, and while we are assured that He is always with us, whether or not we perceive it, that promise was going to come to mean a lot later on in the morning.

But first, let’s talk about the “fellow traveler” piece. In my life, “fellow travelers” are people who are on a similar path as mine. They may be going through the same kind of trial, or maybe they have a particular goal they wish to achieve as do I. This year I have had several fellow travelers as we have traversed the death of a parent together, and I have been most grateful for the strength they have given me.

When it comes to the running community, the fellow travelers are the ones who are perhaps older, maybe not in tip-top running shape, and most often slower. We cheer each other on, and one thing I will say for the running community is that almost always the last one to cross the finish line gets the loudest yells. The youngsters and the elites seem to have a genuine respect for the ones who don’t set records, but finish nonetheless.

Every race is different, and this was the first trail run that I had entered where you faced your competitors on their way back. Thankfully, the trail was wide enough to accommodate two people on it at the same time, but at first I clutched as I saw runners approaching me who had clearly beaten me soundly in terms of race time. I had decided I would make eye contact, smile, and hope for the best. What was the wonderful surprise was how I was greeted with encouragement by each one I passed. “You’re almost there!” “Keep going, you can do it!” “You’re doing great!” I never felt patronized, and was fascinated by how much it helped to have fellow travelers be my cheerleaders, even though they were way out of my league.

And then it happened. I was about 2/3 of the way through with a couple of people behind me, and I don’t know, maybe I got cocky, but at the very least I was not being situationally aware and I hit either a root or a rock. I ended up sprawled across a downward trail. A hideous yelp rocketed unbidden out of my solar plexus, and for a moment I just lay there, really ticked off. But then came the love and the lesson. “Are you going to let this stop you?” That is what lightly but firmly lifted me up, bruises and skinned appendages et al, and propelled me toward the finish line. I took first in my age group (only because I was the only 67 year old), and made a new friend in the form of the woman who patched me up. I took home a practical prize: an enameled denim-ware camp cup with the race logo on it. This week it has cradled my coffee, and will continue to serve to remind me of the power of the smile of the fellow traveler. And, I have decided to let the lesson of the spectacular splat be to pay attention, and smile back.