Eighteen months ago, in the bleak midst of lockdown, we launched “Connect with Tinman Elite" and Hammer & Axe Training. The two programs were intended to help runners from all walks of life find a glimpse of optimism and togetherness amidst the feeling of loss and isolation that was so prevalent. Personally, digitally reconnecting with the running community and its myriad subcultures through honest conversations was one of the few things that got me out the door for my runs. I found inspiration, heartbreak, triumph, despondency, anger, joy, and every other emotion on my “Connect with Tinman Elite'' Zoom calls with high school teams, fellow professional athletes, recreational runners, and subelites.
Every runner’s story was different. Some had rediscovered their love for running now that they were working from home and had time to get out and train. Others had their love for the sport ripped away from them, as they were forced to train away from their teams, clubs, and friends. As a coach, I had athletes build up for full marathons, only for the race to be canceled two weeks before the gun went off. All the emotional and physical investment—all the dreaming, all the suffering—for nothing. Simply put, running was more turbulent, disconnected, and heartless as ever. But in some strange juxtaposition, it was also the most connected, impassioned, and vibrant it's ever been.
As we started to emerge out of lockdown, there was a palpable, electric feeling of anticipation to not just return to normal, but surpass it. To make running a more inclusive, more welcoming, more entertaining, more celebratory place. It was on display in the streets of Chicago, Boston, and New York this fall. It was on display at every high school cross country race this fall. Everywhere I looked, the beautiful struggle of humanity shown through running was more apparent than ever.
This past weekend, I was able to inject myself into the center of that excitement. It started at Cross Champs, hosted at Mt. SAC on the same day as the Eastbay West Regional meet for high school runners. The elite race was a few hours after the final high school race of the day. Before and after our race, we spent time with the hundreds of high school athletes who’d hung around to watch the pros.
To me, seeing the energy of high school athletes is one of the purest looks into what makes running special. Each runner I talked to had an enormous grin and couldn’t wait to talk about their next race, their next season, and how much they wanted to improve. It didn’t matter if they’d had the best or worst race of their life that morning, they were already looking forward. It was humbling to meet with these athletes, many of whom showed a greater level of commitment and resiliency than I did over the past year. Some of them had weathered injury, loss of team, and life-threatening illness. I left Cross Champs feeling inspired by the next generation of runners and hopped on a red-eye to Sacramento just in time for the California International Marathon (CIM) the next morning.
Two of my Hammer & Axe runners, Sean Hamilton and Graham Spry, were set to race CIM with hopes of running in the mid-2:50s. Sean was bouncing back from a brutal day in the Chicago heat eight weeks earlier, and Graham would be making his marathon debut. I was planning to find them around mile five and hop in for a bit to make a few miles go by quicker. I ended up running almost 14 miles with them. I was immediately drawn in by the energy of the crowds, the shared suffering of the runners, and the pure fun of running alongside athletes I’d worked closely with in their buildup to this race.
As an elite, racing can often be handcuffed to stress, stoicism, and professionalism. Midrace displays of emotion are typically labeled as a lack of composure, signs of weakness, and immaturity. I’m all for taking racing seriously. I certainly approach my races with goals in mind, and I’m well aware of the mental and physical focus required to achieve those goals. But I’m also well aware of the joy and fulfillment that competition brings runners of all abilities. It was refreshing to see that joy and fulfillment on the faces of everyone around me during every mile —not just at the finish line.
Waiting at the finish line for Graham and Sean, I saw more emotion and pure love for the sport than I’ve seen in a long time. Maybe ever. Runners who’d met for the first time at mile two and ran the rest of the way stride for stride, hugging as they cried into one another’s arms. Families reuniting, finding their loved ones and celebrating their achievement.
Graham crossed the line in 2:54:07; Sean was close behind him in 2:55:00. Graham raced an incredibly intelligent race and was rewarded with a great debut. Sean ran with heart, and was able to find redemption after disappointment in Chicago with a three minute personal best. I was damn proud of them and thrilled to share some of that post-race emotion as they celebrated achieving something truly special.
This past weekend offered a profound opportunity for me to reconnect with running cultures and communities across a wide range. From middle school cross country runners racing over the hills of Mt. SAC for the first time in hopes of earning a spot on next year’s varsity roster, to 40-year-old parents running their marathons for a charity, a lost parent, or to make their own children believe in the impossible.
If you took the time to introduce yourself at Mt. SAC, if I shared a mile or a moment with you at CIM—I want to say thank you. Each interaction was a tangible reminder for me to enjoy the humanity of running, embrace the difficulties of the sport, and work to invite as many new people, communities, and cultures into this beautiful space I feel lucky enough to call home.
WATCH TINMAN ELITE AT CROSS CHAMPS: