April 20th, 2016
Your feet pound a messy drumbeat on the pavement. The wet T-shirt plastered to your skin pulls against your expanding rib cage with each breath. That little tickle in your left side grows from a dull twinge to a searing pain.
On the road ahead, a silhouette appears between the blinding rays of sunlight, bouncing to a familiar pulse. As the figure approaches, you can only think of the air passing in and out of your lungs, the ache of your feet, and the heat that sizzles the back of your neck. But just before that other runner passes, you do something that an exhausted person in any other circumstance would find ridiculous.
It might seem strange to onlookers. Nobody waves to strangers anymore. But for two passing souls on a lonely stretch of road, that little greeting is an unwritten tradition in running.
I sometimes wonder why it seems so natural. The impulse to give that bit of humanity to a traveler passing the opposite way doesn’t require thought or planning. It just happens.
Like all instincts and reflexes, it must come down to survival. After all, out on a desolate road, as the miles tick by, there is no help if something goes wrong. If your ankle turns the wrong way, some hidden debris pierces your foot, or an internal organ decides to fail, your very survival could depend on a passing stranger. So maybe you wave knowing that you might be that person’s sole lifeline.
And he might be yours.
But that rule of the open road is often absent in medicine. It’s easy to forget that the bustle of a crowded ER or a busy ICU can be just as isolating as the most remote trail. And sometimes that other runner’s broken ankle or dehydration isn’t obvious. In healthcare, we push those wounds deep beneath the surface.
Every runner knows you have to run your own miles. And in medicine, you can’t shoulder someone else’s burden. But you can look ahead, far down the road, and spot a silhouette bounding along in your direction. You can make sure they are still putting one foot in front of the other.
And you can wave.