The Running Man


Like many bloggers, I subscribe to Death to Stock Photo’s monthly free photo pack and at times use their photos here or on my professional site. A couple (few?) months ago, they started offering some additional goodies for their subscribers — I think they asked for an additional opt-in because they didn’t want to bug anyone who just wanted the photos. So I’ve also been getting their (weekly? every other week? I honestly haven’t been paying that much attention to when they come in) writing prompts. Most of the prompts, so far, are actually pretty good ones, and I’ve been tagging and saving them in Gmail to come back when I need a little inspiration/have more time to dig into them.

Last week’s prompt was:

Is there a stranger you never met but still think about from time to time?

I remember I read that and thought something like “oh, that’d be great for some story brainstorming or something” saved it and promptly forgot about it.

Then today, I got another email from those lovely folks with a “featured response” (subscribers/followers are invited to respond to each prompt on Medium). I skimmed the first two lines of this particular response and instantly, this image tumbled into my mind.

The running man

The year I lived with my parents, after moving away from SLO, I commuted across the Bay every day for work.

You know when you have a morning routine and commute, eventually you have things timed down to the second? Like, your alarm goes off and you know you have 46 seconds to crawl out of bed and get in the shower, which takes exactly 8.2 minutes, and so on?

You know how over time, you start picking up little “signs” from the outside world that tell you whether you’re early, on-time, or late?

Like if you’re in front of the UPS guy at Starbucks, you’re good. But if the lady with the Dalmatian has already passed your house by the time you leave, you’re a couple minutes behind.

I was never that exact, but as I drove down the main road to the freeway each morning, the running man was an indicator of whether or not I had a chance of making it to work on time.

He was an older Asian man. He could’ve been 60 or 80 or anywhere in between. He had thin, graying hair. He was probably pretty short, five and a half feet maybe, but I never saw him “up close” or when I was out of my car, so I can’t say for sure. He wore these faded orange running shorts — classic, vintage, authentically retro, the same shorts he’d probably worn since the 80s or so — and a white tank top. And he carried a stick. A thick one, one you could wrap your hand around in a good grip, maybe 12 to 18 inches long.

Every single day, wearing the exact same clothes, carrying that stick, I saw him running up the street (unless I was really late, or more rarely, really early). He ran in the bike lane, facing oncoming traffic. He seemed to have a slow but steady gait, with decent form. I was impressed because this street had hills. Constant, rolling hills.

And he was at it every single day.

I used to wonder about the stick. Was it for protection? A lucky charm? I don’t think I would’ve have noticed him without his stick. A runner in the morning isn’t usually someone who catches your eye, unless there’s something distinctive about him or her.

I liked to think that maybe he ran some precise distance — 4 miles exactly — to a nearby park to meditate or practice tai chi or yoga, and maybe the stick played a role in that.

I’d look for him each morning, in part to reassure myself that I was on time, in part because it just made me happy to know he — someone like him — was out there.