Please Hug Me When We Run Again

by Jen Werbitsky

If we had run together this morning, I would have asked you what you miss the most, and you might have asked me the same. My first answer, before realizing my mistake: I miss paper cups the most, the sound of hundreds of them hitting the pavement in succession, kicked sideways and crumpled by shuffling sneakers.

But the world is quiet now. Quiet in a way that sinks deeper than sound. Running is still there, but the races aren’t. The grand events, the cheering crowds. In the quiet, we pick up our shoes, as we’ve always done, and find a different routine while trying to keep all the unknowns from crowding the course. Will I run my next race in a mask, like a doctor or a superhero? Will Boston happen? Will New York happen? Will anything ever happen again?

This year, like nearly all runners in the world, I am missing both casual morning runs with friends and the spring race circuit with thousands of competitors. Endurance athletes are no stranger to season-ending injuries, but this time a universal ailment has benched us all at once. I am missing crowded urban courses and remote trail races, and I am missing the distinctive hollow paper noise around the aid stations.

In another version of life, one that will never really exist, I would have heard it while running the Boston Marathon a couple weeks ago. During the race, the acapella of the discarded water cups would have echoed across the pavement. It’s a celebratory sound that brings a hint of relief, but one that also says, keep moving. Drink and keep moving. Your race is not over.

If we had run together this morning, we would have reached the halfway point on our run, and, with a slight nod to suggest the turnaround, we would have reversed course. And I would have changed my answer suddenly.

It’s not the paper cup sound I miss the most. No—I’ve confused it with a sensation I discovered at the New York City Marathon almost ten years ago.

When I crossed the finish line, just past the final aid station, I burst into tears. While limping from muscle cramps in a sea of paper cups, I emptied through my eyeballs every ounce of hydration left in my shaking frame.

Shuffling along next to me, a Swedish woman grabbed me and held me.

“It’s ok,” she said, cloaking us both in a silver mylar cape. “It’s over. It’s over.” I wanted to explain to her that I wasn’t crying in pain. It was relief.

Seven weeks earlier, I had fractured my foot, and against the advice of doctors, family and friends, I had cross-trained my way to the starting line and pledged to crawl across the finish if I had to. Thanks to my nineteen-year-old stubbornness (and the hyperactive healing powers of youth), I sailed across the finish line, beating my PR by a full twenty minutes.

In that moment, I was the most ecstatic I had ever been. But I just cried and held her tighter, tears mixing with sweat in a physical bond that lasted only a few seconds before we parted ways in the November twilight.

I miss the sound of the empty cup carpet. But what I miss most is the feeling of hugging sweaty strangers in a crowd. I miss high-fiving hundreds of people while dashing down First Avenue on Mile 18 of the New York City Marathon. I miss sharing energy gels, passed from one clenched fist to the next. Collective crying. So many salty, unhygienic tears exchanged on shoulders. Sometimes snot too.

I miss the tears, sweat and endorphins from physical connection without reservations. We runners left our social norms somewhere far behind when we chose a sport that salutes those who piss themselves right on the course to save a few seconds on the clock. An anonymous you and me blend, and suddenly it’s us, in this together, blown backwards by winds in the Antarctica Marathon or sipping from the same beer after the local Turkey Trot.

This is how running helped me fall in love with the human race, with all of them—all of us—the old and the young, the infirm and the Olympians, the spectators and the support systems, the cheering hoards and reluctant competitors, all united through the physical contact that accompanies our shared pursuits.

For now, we’ve postponed all public commemorations of this primitive need, to run and cheer wildly for miles upon miles, and more deeply, the need for humans being humans together.

But we’ll run again, my friend, even if you’re a country apart or years away.

When that moment comes, I’ll see you on the course with open arms. “It’s ok. It’s over, it’s over,” I’ll say, and I’ll hug you, even if we’ve never met before.

Then we’ll start our run.

JEN WERBITSKY is a New York City-based writer who was born in Manhattan and raised in a rural area south of Buffalo, NY. She is currently working to bridge the gaps between rural and urban communities through agricultural regeneration in the U.S. During her time at Cornell University, she studied creative writing and French and spent time as a translator in Paris.

Artwork by: Sebastian Staines