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How A Three-Year Old Stranger Taught Me To Run

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The Smithsonian Castle, National Mall, Washington DC. Photo by the author.
The Smithsonian Castle, National Mall, Washington DC. Photo by the author.
'Beware of him who hates the laugh of a child' -- Johann Kaspar Lavater

Foot over foot, I headed west along the National Mall. It was long enough ago that I can't recall what time of year it was, only that it was during the day -- midday, maybe, as the sun was not setting -- and that there was what seemed to be an average number of people out walking the monuments.

The National Mall is both a blessing and a curse. Underground tunnels significantly reduce the number of cross-streets, but the lack of shade makes for particularly hot summer training. In the early mornings the Mall is quite empty, allowing one to withdraw from the city and the crowds and haul ass unimpeded with Congress' front lawn as a backdrop. On the weekends, the space is filled with families from around the world, all walking four-wide, oblivious to everything save the sandstone and marble surrounding them.

This particular day was somewhere in between the population extremes -- dotted with families but generally navigable, not requiring the quick-stepping and hyper-awareness needed on the tourism season's peak weekends that serve as a sort of primer for race day. As I rounded the bend in front of the Smithsonian Castle, I saw a family of three walking 100 or so yards in front of me. The father was ahead by about 20 yards, framing the castle behind his wife and son as they walked along. The boy, maybe three years old, was motoring along as young boys do -- the sort of reckless bounce that is less running and more of a perpetual forward-fall propagated by footfalls that land *just* in the nick of time.

I had spent the first 12 minutes of my run struggling to find any semblance of a rhythm, knowing quickly that this particular run wouldn't be enjoyable. It wasn't exactly a trudge, but I certainly wasn't on cloud nine. This isn't uncommon-- many of my runs occur with a sort of cruise control engaged in order to mitigate any and every possible negative event.

The father had rejoined his family, returning his camera to its bag. He and the mother walked along, watching their son bounce his way a few yards ahead. As I passed the boy's parents, his mother called to him to wait and he stopped and turned. Three-fourths of the way through his turn, he looked straight at me as I ran toward him from 20 yards away. He laughed, waved and turned back around, his back now facing towards both his parents and me.

Once I was five yards away, the boy started to run in the same direction as me, looking back to see if I was catching up to him. He laughed a kind of genuine child's laugh that made me feel both young and old at the same time. I passed him, looked over to him and smiled. Almost as soon as our meeting started, it ended-- the boy's mother called to him and he stopped running, quickly falling behind me. As I continued to run away from him, I heard his laughter fade as his father yelled to him in the distance, telling the boy how fast he was.

This entire event happened over the course of maybe 20 seconds -- a 20 seconds that have had a significant, even disproportionate impact on my outlook on running.

There are times when the mechanics of running feel a lot like that boy's motion: uncoordinated, forced, flailing and on the verge of breaking down. More importantly, though, there are times when I find myself grinning from ear to ear, feeling that same sort of visceral joy displayed by the young boy as we ran together. It's these moments, however fleeting they may be, that we're able to take away from running as a sort of karmic currency, a reward for our hard work. Perhaps the universe rewarded me on that particular day by ensuring our brief meeting-- a meeting that would never have occurred had I not set out on a run.

No bad race or injury will ever take the memory of my run with that delightfully happy child away from me, and I'd be lying if I said that I don't take comfort in knowing this. Like so many random intersections between strangers, this meeting is one that I will never be able to fully reproduce. Maybe that's the way it should be; somewhere in the random nature of this passing is the beauty of human interaction, the beauty of a good run.