This past weekend, a friend of mine convinced me and seven other insane guys to run the Blue Ridge Relay. As the sign above states, this is a 208 mile relay run that includes 27,000 feet of elevation gain and loss over the course of 24+ hours (it took us 33 hours). I did this because I have found that if I do not have some sort of audacious goal in front of me from a fitness standpoint, I am a lot less likely to stick to an exercise regimen, so this sounded right up my alley. I had no idea why these other guys were into this; I didn’t know any of them other than my friend, the ringleader, until 2 months ago. What I got out of the weekend was very unexpected.
The word community is thrown around a lot these days. You hear it in churches, city council meetings, neighborhood associations, and book clubs. It seems to be something a lot of people are seeking in their lives. I guess I’d never really gone looking for it. Over 33 hours in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I believe I found community in its truest form in several places.
Dictionary.com defines community as:
I’ll go along with that, but I think there is a little more. More importantly, I think I learned this weekend a couple of secrets to actually ACHIEVING community.
The Blue Ridge Relay requires a massive amount of volunteers to pull it off. Every 3-10 miles, there is an Exchange Zone (EZ) where one runner finishes his/her leg and hands the team bracelet to the next runner. There are 36 of these zones and they are at rural churches, community centers, fire houses, elementary schools, and small businesses scattered all along the route between Grayson Highlands State Park (VA) and downtown Asheville (NC). At every one of these exchange zones, I saw a glimpse of true community – people just helping out others who wanted to be a small part of their town or area. There wasn’t really anything in it for them, they just did it because they cared about their little corner of the world and wanted to share it with others. Some of these people were standing outside at 3 a.m. directing traffic. It was NOT glamorous. What I learned about community from these gracious individuals is that when you have it, you just pull together and get things done because you’re proud to be a part of this THING and you want to show others what being a part of it means.
For me, however, the real lesson of community last weekend came from the 8 guys I shared this experience with in the mountains. I had an inkling a month ago when we got together for a training run up in the mountains that I was going to like these guys. We had fun, laughed, and talked easily about work, running, and life. I had no idea how sharing the incredibly challenging experience of running for 33 hours straight with little or no sleep would deepen those relationships and develop true community. During the course of the weekend, we each had little victories and defeats. Some legs you felt great and came off the course beaming and proud. Other legs it was all you could do to drag yourself to the exchange zone and you just wanted to collapse as soon as you handed off the bracelet. In both cases, these guys were there to greet each other, provide encouragement, and share in either the victory or the challenge. You knew they understood because they were going through the exact same thing. And they knew you didn’t need a lecture, just a shoulder to lean on and someone to hand you some water. As the day and night wore on, we all started to smell, hurt, gripe, and long for it to be over. But we pushed each other on because the task of finishing could only be done together. And as we stood together at the finish line for the picture above, it dawned on me – this is what TRUE community really is – people who commit to a common goal, participate equally according to their strengths and abilities, push each other on in the tough times, and share in common victories together.
It takes being willing to take on something REALLY TOUGH together to create genuine community. I’d love to see our churches, city councils, neighborhood associations and even book clubs truly become the communities they talk about by taking on something REALLY TOUGH together. I believe that if a group of 9 guys who barely knew each other a month ago, certainly didn’t agree on everything, and had lots of different motivations can come together, create genuine community, and accomplish something audacious, then ANY group willing to attack something tough together with a commitment to not quit, will realize not only community, but amazing things.
Cheers to my new friends and being a part of a new community. I hope you will find one too!