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Real Runners: Being “The Runner” In Rural South Dakota

Paying It Forward

For a few years, I coached cross country for a middle school team, a small band of athletes who weren’t quite big or tall enough for the more popular football and volleyball teams. The structured races that I remembered from my youth varied slightly from the helter-skelter Reservation competitions. Courses were not marked; instead, racers followed a leader driving an ATV or riding a horse. If a runner fell too far behind the pack, they often wound up lost until the horse looped back around to find them.

Some of my students chose to run in jeans rather than the quintessential running shorts. One of my runners dropped out of a race to buy a pickle at the concessions stand. But they ran. They came to four practices and one race each week, they cheered each other on and talked about their times over ham and cheese sandwiches on the car rides home.

One day, the road might be dotted with runners who once ate ham and cheese sandwiches in the back of my car–and it might not. That isn’t why I run. I run because it can bring even the most imbalanced body equilibrium.

South Dakota taught me that I don’t need running boutiques, well-lit trails and passing nods at fellow runners to keep doing what I have always done. In the absence of a running culture, I am a lone figure on a dirt road, a black silhouette etched against the sky. But somewhere in the absence, a stronger, more important culture flourishes—the culture of kindness, caring for one’s neighbor and never letting a guest leave hungry. That culture gave me some of the most breathtaking runs of my life, open highways and big skies only occasionally interrupted by passersby asking if I wanted a ride.

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