This past Saturday, friends of ours ran a marathon in the mountains. My husband—complete with cow bell and safety vest—volunteered to direct runners (and traffic) at one of the turns in the race. I was in full spectator mode and watched the race from three different spots along the course.
Not all of what I saw thrilled me: for one, the driver of the SUV who blew past my husband and sped toward runners who were in the process of crossing the road to make a turn in the course.
While many races close their courses to vehicular traffic, this particular race does not. It begins on a track and ends on another track, but in between, on curvy mountain roads, there are few places where vehicles aren’t allowed. Signs alert drivers to be aware of runners on the road. And many drivers are more cautious, move over to give runners room, and/or drive slower as they pass the runners. There are a few, though, who don’t give a rip.
The marathon course includes parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and because it cannot be closed during the race, park rangers step up patrols along the part where runners will be. Volunteers at the turns remind runners to run facing traffic, and for the most part, the runners heed these instructions. But there are some places along the course where the runners have to cross over, dodging cars that could be coming from either direction.
The SUV driver was coming from a direction where she would not yet have encountered runners in the road, but she would have passed caution signs warning of runners ahead. She had not been inconvenienced on her route up until the point where my husband stood in the middle of the road. She would have had to slow down for just four miles (a place where the speed limit is between 35 and 45 anyway), not an onerous amount of time to spend being decent to other human beings. She chose not to be inconvenienced, though. Who cared if these runners were tired? Who cared if they were in a zone and not as alert to their surroundings as they might usually be? Who cared if a car zipped by them too closely and too quickly? She clearly didn’t care.
As drivers, we may find it easy to ignore the fact that actual, live human beings are driving and riding in the cars around us. It’s too easy to dehumanize the other drivers around us. And I’m beginning to wonder if the same isn’t happening with some drivers’ (lack of) regard for cyclists and runners.
Other “objects” out on the road are simply obstacles to be dodged, like some great big real-world video game. Except that they’re not just objects, and you can’t earn more points by getting through the course faster or more recklessly. They’re humans. And the ones who aren’t in cars are more vulnerable.
Running has changed the way I drive and the way I perceive others out on the road, especially runners and cyclists. I have experienced moments in my running when I was so tired I knew I had to be extra careful with traffic. My mental reaction time had slowed because my brain was so focused on the running. When I’m running, my rule is this: never assume the driver sees me. And now when I’m driving: never assume the runner sees me.
Humans have a great capacity for kindness. We have an equally great capacity for being jerks. I’ve seen runners stop during a race to help a fallen runner. I’ve seen runners treat other runners rudely in the way they hog a trail or cut others off at a turn. I’ve seen cyclists stop to let runners pass safely through an intersection, and I’ve seen cyclists completely ignore runners, cars, other cyclists and stop signs so they won’t have to slow down.
We’re free to drive/cycle/run recklessly, but we’re also free to drive/cycle/run considerately (and only one of those deserves a ticket from the park ranger). We’re free to be kind, or we’re free to be insensitive. It’s up to each individual. I just wish more would choose the path of kindness and common decency. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.