I know my neighbors by the way they run. Before I can see their faces, I often recognize them by their strides and outfits.
I see the ponytailed runners, the runners in ball caps, the shoulder-hunchers and the arm-swingers. One wears a weighted vest. Another ran through her third trimester.
In warmer months, I see more adults on jogs than kids on bikes. We run past the same styles of houses and moveable basketball hoops, past the same rusting mailboxes and lost pacifiers that have traveled from stroller to street and been flattened by minivans, like items from a post apocalyptic Babies R Us.
Although Nike and Adidas rarely picture the suburban neighborhood in their shoe commercials, it's a familiar scene to many runners with goals, dreams and race medals, which our preschoolers like to claim and wear around the house. I don't know where some of my neighbors went to college, but I know who plans to run marathons and half-marathons in 2014. I can also predict what they'll be wearing.
I've been a runner for 15 years, but aside from the occasional 5k, I usually ran alone. This spring, I started training for a half-marathon. What prompted me to finally get serious (and social) about running? My neighbors — and where we live.
My neighborhood is a runnable distance from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, but the sport is becoming more popular throughout Cleveland and across America. In 2012, 15.5 million people finished running events, according to Running USA — an 11 percent increase over the year before. Cleveland mirrors national trends, according to Hermes Sports and Events, which produces and manages 138 local races, up from 72 in 2009.
Neuroscientists debate what causes runner's high, but we chase it wherever we can. I prefer the crushed limestone of the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath Trail, where I never tire of the scenery: remains of 19th-century locks, cattail-filled marshes and grasslands, sycamore trees poking at the sky. Asphalt is the convenient choice, though, especially in winter. Avoiding ice adds a new challenge.
Charitable causes also play into running's increasing popularity. I'll never forget my first Race for the Cure, barreling toward the finish line with a thousand other people, many wearing the names of those with the disease we were running to beat.
Running brings us closer to ourselves, to the earth and to one another. Seven years ago, I left Cleveland for Summit County. I still miss my runs over the storied bridges in the Flats and along the lake at Edgewater Park. But runners are runners everywhere: friendly, supportive and colorful in their striking sneakers.
"How far you going today?" asked a cyclist, who I suspect is really a runner, as he passed me on the Towpath Trail.
"Thirteen!" I yelled to his back.
He pumped his fist at the sky, and I forgot for a moment what mile I was on.
For many years, I refused to time myself. Running helped me forget about the time. After a 5k two summers ago, I learned that I placed second in my age group only because a neighbor sent me a Facebook message.
Those neighbors. They added a social dimension to what I'd always considered a loner sport.
Last summer, I started to note the mile markers on the Towpath Trail. I got distracted by turtles lined up on logs, their shiny shells like stepping stones. I strained my neck to watch the herons standing motionlessly in the old Ohio and Erie Canal, as I imagine canal boat passengers once did. I listened to the Cuyahoga River, to the scampering squirrels, to the screeching hawks. While my legs took me one place, these things took me somewhere else.
I joined my neighbors' goal-setting conversations in the cul-de-sac where our kids played. I decided to run my first half-marathon in October, on the Towpath, of course.
Then the government shut down, delaying the Towpath Marathon. Like many runners, I was frustrated training for an event without a date. The small stuff — chafing, blisters, knee pain — became increasingly annoying. My neighbor Amy, also training for the half-marathon, encouraged me not to give up.
On the morning of Nov. 3, we arrived at the rescheduled race just before the roads closed. The temperature was in the 30s, and Amy shivered in her fleece-lined pink top that matches her Brooks Ghost running shoes. We hopped around the Brandywine Ski Resort parking lot, trying to keep the blood flowing to our feet.
After the race began, the regular Towpath sounds were drowned out by pounding feet, loud breathers and the small, blue cowbells the spectators were ringing. I began to regret attempting my first half-marathon in the place I normally go for peace and quiet.
At mile 8, my legs hurt. At mile 10, I felt nauseous. In between water stops and cowbells, I heard my neighbors' voices in my head: You can do this!
I passed the finish line in just under 2 hours, 4 minutes. Amy's family and mine were there, cheering. Soon, the entire cul-de-sac would hear about our race, another personal victory to share. There is something wonderful about that kind of joy. But I also remembered the need for solitude that got me running.
Now I'm even more excited about running on the Towpath and, once again, ceasing to care about the time.