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A Lesson in Human Connection from the Church Basement

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Here’s a departure from my piano “lessons.”

I’m a member of the Rochester Track Club, a group of committed athletes from Rochester, Minnesota. The organization has been in operation for about fifty years and provides training and support and puts on races for a spectrum of us runners.

There are events of distances from one mile up to nationally certified marathons at 26.2 miles. Today’s run, staged by the club, was a test of endurance. Why? Because it’s the dead of winter. I’m in Minnesota. The run was not about distance, however, or a marathon, or an obstacle course. Remember, it’s winter. I’m in Minnesota.

The lesson I learned as we hearty souls gathered in a church basement in January provided a fascinating slice of life on a bitterly cold Saturday morning.

Once a year, the club stages this unique race. The distance is a relatively modest 5k, which is 3.1 miles through residential neighborhoods. It is an “out and back” course, and the object of the race is to predict your time.

The turnaround area is marked by a three-foot penguin with a hat and scarf—a suitable marker for Minnesota. I predicted my time at 34 minutes, which is a very modest performance and an achievable goal.

But now for the rest of the story.

We are not allowed to use cell phones, wearables, FitBits, iPhones, stopwatches, or any kind of timing device. If we come in under our estimated time, we are “disqualified.” The top ten finishers who were closest to their predicted time would win a prize. This was not a trophy, a trip to Disney, or a medal. The prize was a handcrafted six-inch bear, which was carved by one of the runners.

Because of the bitterly cold, windy and gray Minnesota morning, the staging area was in a church basement. And the starting line was just across the street. It was one of the first times that any of us could remember that no one had a cell phone and no one was wearing a watch.

These were the rules, and everyone was conscientious about these restrictions. This was not exactly a tryout for the Olympics. Just a fun gathering of like-minded souls.

But what was remarkable were crescendos of laughter, of human beings actually making eye contact and speaking with each other. No one was off by themselves completely zoned in on setting their timers. No one was mindlessly scrolling through social media on an iPhone or taking selfies or posting on Instagram.

There was a sense of joy, a sense of camaraderie, and a sense of connectedness, which most of us have never experienced at the start of a race. And we learned a lot about each other.

One runner had an orthopedic device on her foot and shared with us how the accident happened, her concerns about her future running, and her optimism that all would work out. We acknowledged her fortitude in just showing up.

Another runner in his late fifties had lost his job when a major tech company outsourced his work group. He now has a position in a warehouse that contains thousands of medical records obtained from hospitals that are now closing. The records are in paper format. His job is to tease out certain documents, which are then scanned into a computer.

One of our members has national status and is a personal trainer. She shared that absolutely out of the blue she developed pain in her left knee. She was simply going down stairs. We all laughed at our obsessiveness with aches and pains that almost never amount to anything but which always get our attention. She was reassured when a chorus of listeners said, “Oh, yes, I get that all the time. Get a life. Don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine.” We each had a hearty laugh.

The race went off without a hitch. Nobody slipped on the ice or got eaten by a polar bear and there were ten happy campers who went home with a beautiful carved bear.

Unfortunately, my wife and I went home empty-handed because we came in three seconds faster than our estimated time and were disqualified.

But we did win. The “trophy” we brought home was a powerful lesson in being connected, of listening, of making eye contact, and not staring at a device that bludgeons us with endless demands, expectations, and deadlines.

The future belongs to the fit, of course. But the future also belongs to those who have the courage and the tenacity to unplug, tune out, and embrace the power of human connections (and those who are hearty enough to withstand a Minnesota winter).

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