The Village Idiot: The path of the lonely runner

 By John Hopkins

A friend recently invited me to participate in a 5k run in his neighbourhood. I enjoy running – it is my physical activity of choice – and it was nice to take part in something organized that did not involve one of my regular routes. What I enjoyed most about the event, however, was the social aspect – not necessarily the hanging out before and after, although that was nice too – but actually sharing the road with other people. It was a strange and somewhat exciting experience.

I enjoy running in part because it is an individual activity – I can schedule it pretty much whenever I want and I don’t need to travel to a rink or other sports complex and I don’t require a lot of expensive equipment. But for the most part it is not a social endeavour. This is especially true when you live in the country, where you are even less likely to come across a fellow runner, or even a cyclist or walker, than if you were travelling the streets or trails of Belleville or Trenton.

In addition to the social aspect there are practical advantages to running with others. On my own I always have difficulty pacing myself – I tend to go as quickly (or as slowly) as the mood suits, and I sometimes struggle to find a challenging enough pace without overdoing things. There is also the sense of a shared struggle when running with a partner or a group, and the encouragement and support that comes from that.

With that in mind I take companionship anywhere I can find it, and that usually takes the form of animals. Some animals seem to take a greater interest in my activity than others. There are dogs that will periodically come flying out of an unfenced yard and make a major fuss, literally displaying more bark than bite. I often pass a herd of cows that collectively raise their heads when I jog by and slowly turn their heads as one, meditatively chewing their cud and watching impassively, probably wondering what on earth I am doing. I have had the odd horse trot along a fence line beside me, humouring me briefly before it became bored or frustrated by my slow pace. It is nice to come across other living creatures like these, but in terms of providing support or encouragement these animals are not particularly helpful.

In that respect, my favourite spectators live together on a farm not far from our house. There is a large dog with thick, light-coloured fur, a couple of goats and two llamas. On a nice day they will all be out together and as a group watch me pass, perhaps adding a congratulatory grunt or nod. On a more imposing day, typically in fall, the dog will stand lookout for me and bark an alarm when I am approaching, drawing the rest of the crew out from the barn.

At first this crowd, the llamas in particular, were not very encouraging and didn’t do much for my enthusiasm. On one occasion, an especially windy day, I could see the gang of them sheltering themselves from the wind behind a barn. As I drew near the dog came out and shouted the alarm, and gradually the sheep and llamas reluctantly came out as well. But the llamas were not impressed. One made a disparaging grunt and I swear the other spat in my direction. I think I heard them both snickering later. I was not terribly motivated. 

I can only assume the sheep or the dog had a talk with the llamas, because subsequently I have noticed that the llamas are more respectful of my efforts, or they at least do not show their ridicule so overtly. Whatever the reason, I have found recently that the llamas watch more quietly and keep their thoughts to themselves.

On the bright side, at least the llamas come out and watch. I have had rabbits quickly run into hiding when I come trotting past, and on one or two occasions I have seen a deer disappearing into the wood as I approached. I have seen the remnants of dead snakes, chipmunks and squirrels on the road, a stark reminder to keep my eyes and ears open.

I have not come across any bears in my travels, which is perhaps a good thing. I’m not sure how one would react to seeing me coming along the road. Depending on his mood, he may choose not to stick around, or I may find I have an unexpected running companion chasing behind me. I would definitely find out what sort of pace I could manage. That may even get those llamas to respect me.