Commentary: The fellowship of runners

Jill's email read, "Call me. It's not good."

I called right away.

"It's Jake's nephew, Sam. He's back in the hospital. It's serious."

The news cast a pall over my Friday. I'd met Sam only once. He was a compact wiry kid with surfer curls crowning his tan face. I think of Sam on a surfboard skimming the waves, not in a hospital bed.

And Sam wasn't just any nephew; he was Jake's ward. Jake and Lea guided him through tough times. His leukemia had been in remission, and he was doing well in school.

Jill continued, "Their trip's canceled, for sure."

Australia in August was their much-anticipated family vacation. Jake researched races and registered for the Brisbane Marathon to occupy one vacation day.

Jill was right; our coach's carefully planned vacation was out.

I couldn't email my weekly mileage totals to Jake. Seemed trivial, irrelevant.

The next day I watched Saturday Runners exit their cars and heard about Sam. Their somber mood matched mine.

We ran our 13 miles but nobody felt like celebrating one runner's new job and another's birthday. Post run, we went home.

Why does our empathy run so deep? Although some Saturday Runners travel together to marathons and meet for a few dinners a year, most social time is spent in a parking lot, gulping water and dripping sweat. Besides post-run Starbucks' coffee, we don't socialize much.

I believe our bond comes from unconscious recognition of each other's pluck. Every runner in that lot gets up early on weekends. Every runner sets goals, be it three miles or 23.

Every runner toughs it out, whether his pace is a 6-minute-mile or a 16-minute-mile. We don't give up.

Our bond is born of respect. We inspire each other by showing up. We encourage each other to finish a run. We teach each other what's possible by rehabilitating and returning after injury.

We tease each other mercilessly. As the butt of jokes about age and nose dives, I take my knocks. Steve should not have shared about his groin-pull two weeks ago. He probably won't name that injury again.

John made the mistake of getting off the trail for a slice of a friend's birthday cake and not showing up after a run. His concerned buddies doubled their mileage going back to search for him. He's been "Cake-Boy" ever since.

We trade on each other's vitality, energy and ability to hang in. Serious illness of a family member zaps all of the above.

We feel Jake's distress acutely. We want his nephew to be well, we want Jake's family to regain the blessed freedom that health affords, and we want Jake back among us.

Newport Beach resident CARRIE LUGER SLAYBACK is training to run the Los Angeles Marathon at age 70.

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