I wiped my sweaty palm across my pink tank top, my fingers brushing the race number pinned across my stomach. It was my first official trail race in Colorado: a 10K with about a thousand feet of elevation gain.
When the race began, I had smiled, put in my earbuds, and confidently started running up the mountain. But the excitement and adrenaline was wearing off. Because the trail was narrow and steep, the runners were spaced out, so soon I found myself running alone. I tried to distract myself by appreciating the gorgeous rows of aspen trees, but I couldn’t ignore the lead-like feeling in my legs. I didn’t train hard enough for this, I thought. Why did I think I was ready for this? I should just walk.
The power of a smile
As I rounded a corner, my pace so slow that I was barely running, I was startled to see another runner coming toward me, his bib color different from mine. I remembered there was another race happening on this same mountain — a half marathon — and those runners had to double back to fill all 13 miles.
The guy’s t-shirt was soaked through with sweat. A blue Camelback straw flopped lazily on his shoulder, and his pace was about as slow as mine. As our eyes met, I saw a look of defeat. Out of habit, I smiled a small smile.
His eyebrows knit together, and he looked confused for a second. But just as we were about to pass each other, his lips pulled back in a grin. His shoulders relaxed. As he ran past me, warm air whooshed between us and I heard his shoes crunch a little faster as he picked up his pace.
I jogged up another hill and around a corner, still smiling, and saw another runner coming toward me — an older man with tufts of white hair and an exhausted look on his face. Inspired, I looked him straight in the eye, grinned widely, and nodded. He smiled too, looking bemused.
After that, it felt like a game. I would listen carefully for a runner coming toward me, make eye contact, and smile. Every runner I passed for the next several miles grinned back at me, and every time one passed, I thought about how much harder the half marathon race must be and how much shorter and easier my race was. My shoes crunched on the gravel and I kept running, surprised at the pace I was keeping.
Soon I was alone again, and my mind went back to a day about a year earlier, another day when I had felt exhausted and wanted to quit.
Someone else’s shoes
It was the day after a breakup with a boyfriend. That day, I had trudged up the stairs at work, wishing I could be finished with dating forever.
As I settled at my desk, one of my coworkers started talking to me about issues they were having with an adult child. I tried my best to pay attention, but the painful words that had been said to me the night before replayed in my head like a sad song on the radio.
As my coworker talked, it was clear that the situation with his child was very hard and very complicated. After he finished his story, I spun my chair back around to my computer and acknowledged that his situation was much worse than my silly breakup. The hurt in my chest started to subside and a tiny bit of hope rose in me.
Although I wasn’t running a physical race that day, I’d arrived at work emotionally exhausted and worn out. But it only took three actions in three seconds to turn my day around and get the surge of hope I needed.
Second 1: Look someone in the eye
Second 2: Consider their perspective or struggle
Second 3: Smile and offer some form of encouragement
Since that race day, I’ve found that you can use this strategy anytime, anywhere. You can glance at someone beside you at a traffic light and smile. You can schedule a Zoom call with a friend and choose to listen and ask questions. You can greet someone in the salad dressing aisle at the grocery store and compliment their boots.
And when you take your mind off your own problems for just three seconds, something amazing will happen.
During the trail race, I was so focused on my “smiling game” that I didn’t notice the miles passing. When I rounded the final corner, I could not believe how close the finish line was. The day I was trying to get over the painful breakup, I had no idea that, weeks later, I would go on my first date with the sweet man who would eventually become my husband.
Life can sometimes feel like a long, sweaty trail race for which you didn’t train well enough. But remember, there will always be someone whose race is longer and much more difficult than yours. So, stop looking at your own tired feet. Find someone who needs encouragement. Look them in the eye. Listen to their story. Smile. And while you’re at it, keep running.
You never know what’s right around the corner.
Philippians 3:13-14: Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Copyright 2021 Kathryn Andersen. All rights reserved.