It was the first day of a new running group. I've been running forever, but that doesn't really matter; when you show up for a new group, the same things flash through your mind. Will I be last? Am I in the right place? Do I know anybody–and what if I don't know anybody? What if nobody wants to run with me?
I was lucky that morning. A tall gentleman in a blue track suit said, "I want to run with the lady in the tennis skirt." I laughingly explained that it was a running skort, and we exchanged names; he was Milton, and the two of us warmed up together, laughing again when neither of us could successfully touch our toes (look; runners can be REALLY inflexible). Warm-up done, the run leaders explained the route and we set off. Milton knew somebody else there in the dark of the morning–after all, it was 5:30 a.m.–and Nick fell in with us. We jogged for a bit at an easy pace but when Milton mentioned that he had some tightness in his hamstring, we opted to walk it out.
We got to talking about our running backgrounds and it quickly became apparent that Nick was an accomplished runner who'd been pounding the pavement since 1973. We quickly found that he and I had done many of the same races, and he regaled us with some great stories about running on ship while he was in the Navy and going to cool places, like Morocco. Before we knew it, the three of us had crossed the Congress Avenue bridge and were making the turn down Riverside. Our goal was the RunTex parking lot where we'd started.
As we got closer, we could hear the noise of the people who'd finished before us. The run leaders came around the corner and fell in step with our little group, encouraging Milton to try running again. He picked it and we turned the corner to see a happy gauntlet of well-wishers welcoming us in.
You see, we were the very last runners that morning. The new running group was sponsored by Back on My Feet, an organization that uses running to help those experiencing homelessness to find pride and new purpose in their lives. This was the inaugural run for the new Austin chapter. My new buddy, Milton, was one of the resident team members, meaning that Milton was that "homeless guy" who's struggling with personal demons while living in a shelter. Nick, a running coach at Lifetime Fitness, was a non-resident member, one of the group leaders who volunteers to show up and lead those three-times-a-week, 5:30 a.m. required runs that each resident member pledges to make. Nick had also given Milton a ride to the run when the van from the shelter had been too full to accommodate all 28 runners. And I was there to help make sure that no member ran or walked alone that morning, one of the promises that Back on My Feet makes to those who are nervous about starting out for the first time in a running program.
Running is a great equalizer. When you run the same pace, you hang together; it doesn't matter if you live in a 3,000-square-foot home, a condo, the converted game room at your parents' new place, or a bed at the shelter. Milton, like any of us runners, was committing himself to a new goal and a new workout group. His workout group just happens to also involve making a few life changes, working hard to confront some problems, and putting himself back on his feet in terms of getting a job, earning a living, and, yes, finding a home.
It was a pleasure running with Milton and Nick. And it was a pleasure to see the Austin running community doing what it does best: welcoming new runners into the family.