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Finding Community

By Carrie Stander

I'll be the first to admit that I'm kind of a loner. I was raised to be incredibly independent, and I'm shy, too. I prefer to run in silence, and I think solitude is one of life's chief pleasures. You might be wondering if that makes me the wrong sort of person to ponder the idea of community. But I'll let you in on a little secret: connection is key, even for the introverts among us.

Community is commonly defined as a 'unified body of individuals'. That dictionary definition makes me a little claustrophobic, like we all need to be in the same room all the time. But over time, I've come to realize that community is more about the spirit of fellowship, rather than physical proximity or continuous interaction. Luckily for me, you don't need to hang out every single day to be part of a community. Because, believe it or not, that feeling of fellowship is one of my favorites!

Fellowship with Mt. Fuji and friends

The community I'm part of (and you too, I suspect!) is the trail/running community. I think the top three benefits of belonging to this community include the special energy of joining an organized event, finding inspiration and making friendships.

Give energy, get energy

Do you remember your first race? I'll never forget mine. Late in the game to the running world, I was a graduate student when I ran my first 10k. Before race date, I'd only gone on a few runs. I mostly trained for my first race by running on a treadmill at the gym, which feels hard to believe now! So I was certainly not prepared for the energy that awaited me on the starting line.

Lucky number 777 at my first race ^^

Hundreds of brightly clad runners joined together in something like a symphony, playing an ode to human potential. Our feet beat out a continuous rhythm on the pavement of my old college town. For the first time, I wasn't alone in the happiness that accompanies physical effort! Here were other people who, despite being potentially very different from me in countless other ways, were just like me in this one fundamental thing: our joyful forward momentum.

As I ran (too fast, of course), I shared great, breathless conversations with strangers. But even when I wasn't speaking, I felt the energy of the crowd as it surged through the streets. It was electrifying! I was helping to create that energy with my own motion and enthusiasm. At the same time, I felt I could draw on it as a source of strength. I had expected my first race to be fun, but I did not expect to be moved nearly to tears by the incredible energy of a community of people moving together towards a shared goal.

To my delight, this was not a once in a lifetime experience. As I went on to run more events of differing lengths and in different places, I found that same energy at each and every one. It's what's kept me coming back to racing, year after year. Organized events are an incredible, self-sustaining sources of energy. Give that race your all, and get back all the feels.

Love those race start vibes

Be inspired, be inspiring In a vacuum, we can't know what all is out there in the world for us. We don't know what challenges are worthwhile - or even what events exist! Similarly, we often don't know what we're capable of until we see others attempting a challenge we might never have otherwise have dreamed of.

So inspired by these two trail heroes! In my case, I have my partner to thank for getting us into trail running in the first place. We'd each done a handful of road marathons independently before we met, but together, we preferred to spend our days in nature: frequently hiking in the mountains from dawn until dusk. One day my better half suggested we run the trails we'd been walking, and we've never looked back! Very nearly every single race I've ever run entered my radar by way of community as well. A good friend suggested we venture to the Philippines and give racing outside of South Korea a try. That race (Cordillera Mountain Ultra, if you're curious) was an unforgettable adventure that kickstarted a few years of running fun all around Asia, prior to the pandemic. Because, of course, at CMU we met other runners who had their own local events to recommend... You know how it goes: say yes to one opportunity, and it usually opens the door to another! It might be hard to imagine, but you never know when your actions are also a source of inspiration for someone else. A friend or family member might be embarking on their own fitness journey, and looking to you for guidance, whether you know it or not. So keep it up, my friend! Find people who inspire you to be your best, and know that you, too, are a role model for all the awesome things you do.

Be your buddy's cheer squad at his or her next race, or volunteer at a local event for even more inspiration! Fast friendship I don't know about you, but I've sometimes found it hard to find new friends as an adult. There's always colleagues from work, sure, and I do try to maintain long-distance friendships with my hometown homies. Moving to a new city (or country!) offers countless new opportunities, but can be isolating, too. I think the best way to make connections is by starting on common ground. For me, that common ground is literal: meet me at the trailhead and we're buds already!

Another running rendezvous with this fine friend! After struggling somewhat with the constant cycle of friendship turnover common to the expatriate world, I turned to my hobby for companionship. Through the trail running community in East and Southeast Asia, I've met so many incredible humans. Some are more distant figures of inspiration, and others are pals that I love to run into at races across the continent. A very precious handful became close friends. Indeed, if it wasn't for the trail running community, I might never have met my best friend!

Forever friends, on and off the trail Even if a connection doesn't always lead to a lasting friendship, that doesn't mean it doesn't have value. I'll never forget the Korean grandma who massaged my shoulders and spoke soothingly to me during the lowest point in my first 100 kilometer run - nor will I forget the traveling Chinese shoe salesman who fronted me a pair of sneakers ahead of a race. I'll always remember the race volunteers I hung out with in Kazakhstan and the fine folks I shared a guesthouse with in East Java! You meet the coolest people in this sport, I swear.

My people. My tribe. My community.

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