The scene is being played out simultaneously in hundreds of towns and cities throughout the Eastern Time Zone. In the hours to come, it will be played out in waking communities farther to the west, played out in postage stamp urban parks and suburban strip malls, in recreation center gymnasiums and running store parking lots, in sunshine and rain, wind and fog and snow. We live in a land of runners, of ambulatory dreamers, and from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon, these dreamers in their tens of thousands are congregating for the weekend long run. And a congregation it most certainly is, a moving church of the fit and the free, coming together in fellowship to share something most might not even be able to name, but all feel to their marrow: that bubbling secret sauce that spices up their days, that grows even more savory and delicious when shared, each acolyte adding their own special ingredient to the mix.
On this misty January Sunday morning, in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood, some one-hundred runners gather at "The Coffee Tree," a commodious caffeine emporium on a street of upscale boutiques, salons and bakeries. Runners of all ages, shapes and sizes, wander in from the lingering winter darkness, (the architecturally-appropriate streetlamps outside stubbornly refusing to flicker off) and into the brightly-lit shop. The early-birds arrive in hushed ones and twos, soon to be joined by increasingly jovial dozens. They order a last cup of coffee or tea, use the bathrooms in back, the doors of which bear signs that say, “Whatever. Just Wash Your Hands.” They lean on one another’s shoulders while they stretch their quads, they loan one another energy gels. They commiserate about injuries, complain about skimpy nights of sleep.
Misery loves company, the saying goes, which is true; suffering shared is suffering lessened. But the other, happier side of that coin is that joy shared is joy increased exponentially, a concept that is on full display in Shadyside, as the Coffee Tree overflows and the narrow street outside becomes a swirling kaleidoscope of colorful waterproof jackets beaded with raindrops, of shorts and tights of every hue, flashing logos from every brand of running shoe under the sun. The electric, pre-run cocktail of apprehension and excitement builds; the volume ramps up. The collective feeling is almost giddy. It is clear the gang cannot wait to get going.
It is the job of Tim Lyman, Fleet Feet Pittsburgh’s Director of Training Programs to ride herd on this exuberant crew, assisted by Jon Fisher, head coach of the Fleet Feet Running Club, and Deb Doyle, Fleet Feet’s District Manager for the Northeast Territory. The trio is efficient, friendly and supportive, and soon they have the runners lined up along the sidewalk behind smiling pace group leaders holding up signs emblazoned with the group’s designated pace. Fisher leads the throng in a warmup routine, then one by one the groups of fired-up runners, doing loops of three, six, or twelve miles, set out into the periodic drizzle, each runner carrying with them a personal collection of dreams, dreams they may not be able to name or explain, but which nonetheless animate their every stride.
After the run, pace leader Antonella Polito holds forth on the nature of those dreams. “The goal is to run forever, right? To visit new places, meet new people along the way, and continue to lose (or find?) myself in my uninterrupted thoughts.”
The dark hair peeking out from beneath her cap is damp from the intermittent rain and her face is flushed with that particular giddiness of a runner whose task is done for the day. The coffee shop, filling with laughing runners, positively crackles with it. Polito tells her running story, starts from the beginning:
“I started running in 2015 at age 35. A former couch potato, things escalated quickly from run/walking the cul-de-sacs to now training for marathon #8. I was working long hours in the ER, where everything was fast-paced, noisy and urgent. Running became an escape where I could be alone with my uninterrupted thoughts.”
But she soon found there was another side to that coin.
She continues, more excitedly, “Then, I learned there were others. Entire clubs of people waking up early to run together! So, I joined and made a few friends and suddenly running became my social outlet. We’ve run so many miles together. Some miles, we lamented and others we celebrated. We grabbed coffee or food after runs. We traveled together for races. I always left inspired to run farther and faster.”
This is a story many runners recognize. One day we are a non-runner, and, seemingly the next, running is our life. Our friends are runners, (or else patiently tolerate us and our weird new habit) our daily and weekly schedule is built around running. What we eat and how much we sleep is dictated by running. Our vacations are scheduled around races or runs in exotic new places. “Running became everything to me,” Polito says. She takes a sip from her cup of coffee, grows thoughtful, “And it was too much.”
So she moved the next step up the runner’s evolutionary ladder, (aided, alas, by an injury, a fractured sacrum) found a way to make running an integral, but no longer dominant, part of her life. She found balance: balance between running and friends, running and family, balance between running and other interests, like hiking and reading, even balance between running and being a perhaps overly-empathetic ER physician, and eventually, the balance of being a running doctor working in a less frenetic public health position.
"Do you think it's okay,” I ask, turning over the coin once more, “If – just sometimes – running still is everything?”
She laughs, as if being caught doing something naughty. “Is it?” She thinks for a minute, then smiles just a bit wickedly. “I guess it is. And it’s great!”
We talk about how running is all about two sides of one coin. How we, as runners are driven by different, seemingly opposing impulses, how running satisfies our craving for both time spent in quiet contemplation and time in gregarious play with others, how running offers up conflicting notions of pain.
“I love going harder and harder, stretching myself, seeing how far I can push it, but also, and this is weird,” (other side of the coin alert!) “How in a marathon, I’ve never really suffered.”
She describes that place only super-fit (and lucky) runners get to, where it’s really hard, (and yeah, it must hurt, right?) but where we simply float, we exist in the extended moment of the race, letting the animal be the animal, not thinking, just…running.
We talk for more than an hour, expounding on the idea of two sides to every coin: the misery of an injury and the valuable lessons that come from being injured, the intense satisfaction of a new PR or FKT weighed against the nagging notion that we’ll never be fast enough. One side of the coin says there are always people faster than us, the other says there are always people slower. Like most competitive runners, (she is a 3:10 masters marathoner, so plenty competitive) Polito thinks more about those who are faster.
“How do they do it?’ she asks, her face a mask of wonder.
Which brings us to a coin Polito balances expertly. Our conversation has revealed her to be a deeply humble person, aware and in awe of the world and people around her. She is truly grateful to be alive, running, and able to experience what the world offers up to her. At the same time, however, (though her natural humility might cause her to beg to differ) Antonella Polito is a woman of steely resolve, tremendous work ethic, infectious good humor, probing intellect, and vast reservoirs of empathy. She is ordinary, yet she is extraordinary. She makes me think of another coin to turn over.
Running gives ordinary people the chance to do extraordinary things. To run longer or faster than they ever could have imagined, go places they never thought they’d see, share the pavement with the fleetest runners in the world. Running turns couch potato physicians into four-time (and counting) Boston Marathon qualifiers and leaders in a vibrant running community. On the other hand, running lets people living extraordinary lives in extraordinary times, (an ER doctor dealing daily with the extremes of human suffering, for instance) inject a little normalcy into days that are anything but normal. Running is that deep breath of the mundane that lives in the rampaging heart of the craziness.
Which brings us back to dreams.
The 2025 Boston Marathon falls on Polito’s 44th birthday, and she plans on being at the starting line, which is a pretty cool dream, “But, really,” she asks, “Isn’t running the dream?”
Tangible vs. intangible dreams, another two-sided running coin.
“I’m not sure if I’m chasing a dream or chasing the ‘dreaming’ but those PRs feel great, and I wouldn’t mind a few more.” And so, Antonella Polito, chaser of dreams, flips another coin. Whichever side it lands on, she’s already a winner.
Brent Terry escaped lockdown onto the trails of southern New England, where he runs, recites poems and performs interpretive dances for tiny woodland creatures. His stories, essays, reviews and poems have appeared in dozens of journals, and he is the author of Four collections of poetry. The Body Electric, a novel, was published in 2020 by Unsolicited Press. Terry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, a PEN Faulkner Award for Fiction, and the Connecticut Book Award for Poetry. He was the 2017 winner of the Connecticut Poetry Prize. He teaches at Eastern Connecticut State University, but yearns to rescue a border collie and return to his ancestral homeland of the Rocky Mountain West.