My Monday morning commute is a 2-mile run to a strip of pavement sandwiched between churches and parking lots downtown. The sidewalks are empty. The only traffic in motion at 5 a.m. is the city’s homeless population carting what few belongings they have rolled and fastened to their backs to their next chance at a cup of coffee. Maybe even a hot meal. It is the 5 am migration. And for the next hour, these are our streets.
My job is to be perky and to show up on time. The meeting spot is the edge of the parking lot even though it is barren of cars. The spaces are lines we just don’t cross. I bounce from foot to foot to stay warm. I do it to insert some energy into the air. See if it will take off. Perhaps land on someone who can’t shake it off. At least, that is my hope.
Our boss is named coach. And her team is an ever-fluctuating roster of souls in transition looking for direction, a road map out of this paved purgatory. Individually we are a mess. Together we are runners.
The purpose of the group is to provide a stable and supporting environment for homeless people to transform their lives. I first learned of Back on My Feet years ago when it was in its nascent phase in Philadelphia. The idea of a running group for the homeless has always resonated with me. Because running requires one thing: the desire to move forward. Your pace is irrelevant. Your route is flexible. The only thing that matters is putting one foot in front of the other. Because sooner or later you will find yourself somewhere else.
My running buddy is fast. We have two very different philosophies of running. I have always focused on long distance. Setting a target and chipping away at the miles in between. His doctrine involves speed and whether or not he podiums. For him, every run is a race you should aim to win. I think there is room for both approaches.
My running buddy did not choose me as his partner. He was showing up long before I came to the group. But one morning I arrived, assessed the other runners, and noted that he looked fast. And that he didn’t have anyone else to run with. I don’t know his last name. I don’t know why he ended up on the streets. And I don’t really care. I just don’t want him to wind up back there.
For the rest of the week he enters my mind. I wonder if he’s made any friends yet. If he still talks to his family. I wonder if he feels proud of the progress he’s made.
Sometimes he thinks of me too in that he hopes I won’t show up. The other morning he had just come off a shift of work and was tired. He did not really want to run fast. I said fine. I told him to set the pace. We made it one block before he changed his mind and we dropped 6:30s at 5:30 a.m. We accelerated on the hills. And we talked about how sometimes when you’re running alone, you just feel slower than you really are, that sometimes you have to propel yourself into the hurt to get better. And that is how I know I did my job.