“Who are you?” When the question is posed, something common emerges across responses from coaches, elites, race directors, and runners of every level. The roles we take the most pride in seem to be those through which we serve others and the parts of ourselves we love the most are ones we recognize as emerging through the support of others.
Community is a sometimes overused buzzword and one so broad that it can mean anything, but in running it’s felt and known to be real by everyone who experiences it. It’s vibrant, addictive, nourishing, and easy to take for granted.
Over the past four years, Saucony Hurricanes athlete Laura McLean found herself inspired to take on a greater role as a community builder. When I ask Laura who she is, she explained that she’s certainly an athlete, but adds, “Hopefully I can be a better coach than athlete. I want to leave a mark on the community that’s given me so much.”
Over the past year or so, Laura has thrown herself into her resolution full force, taking on new roles as the Coaching Coordinator for Toronto’s Longboat Roadrunners and Assistant Coach for Ryerson University’s Cross Country team, a program that was started by Laura’s own coach and Longboat co-founder Timo Uuksulainen.
Her athletes have inspired Laura in the midst of a year where she describes her own running as being “not very interesting.” According to Laura, “I kind of plateaued. I wasn’t improving while the women I competed with were improving tremendously.” In particular, Laura felt she wasn’t meeting her potential at the marathon, which led to increasing frustration with training.
Leading morning and afternoon practices with Ryerson have reinspired Laura and renewed her energy toward training. “It’s so easy,” Laura says, “to put in my own workout after seeing students put their heart and soul into practice.” In November, she’ll take that momentum to the National XC Championships in Kingston.
As Coaching Coordinator with the Longboat Roadrunners, Laura’s responsibility is to support new members in finding their place within the club by understanding their goals and connecting them with a coach. Laura also organizes the new member’s brunch—this year’s attendees were treated to a talk from Rachel Hannah—as well as track and field days and Sunday long runs.
The role that Laura enjoyed the most, however, and thinks may just be her calling, came almost by fluke when she was asked to be the finish line announcer at the Longboat Island 10K in September. “They asked like three people before me,” Laura says.
Before the race, Laura received a call from “Too Tall” Tony Fletcher, the iconic Toronto race announcer and fellow Longboater. Over the phone, Tony “ran through the basics, but also mentioned that there are so few women doing race announcing. I don’t think I’ve ever heard my name called but a woman at a race,” Laura told me.
The contrast between Fletcher’s Michael Bufferesque bass and Laura’s self-described Oshawa twang couldn’t be greater and Laura admits to some apprehensiveness prior to race day.
When the day finally arrived, Laura was reminded, “It’s not about you when it comes to racing and no one cares how you do. They’re happy if you’re happy.” Similarly, when it came to announcing, it only mattered that Laura was enthusiastic and let others feed off of that.
“As I got more comfortable I saw that it was about everyone else,” Laura recalls. “I could see people smile as they heard their name. It’s really about that 8 or 80 year old having their achievement recognized.”
The roles Laura has taken on at Ryerson and Longboat are illustrative of the extreme effort and dedication that create the experiences that make running and racing such a joy.
The layers we add to ourselves when we run, the connections we make, and the triumphs we bask in are made possible by the sometimes unseen work others put in on our behalf. For Laura, the years spent under the tutelage of Coach Timo taught her there’s no tradeoff between being a great athlete and serving others and that when we serve, we grow along with our community.
The lesson Laura learned is one for all runners. The running community has grown through the efforts of countless athletes and leaders who have carried on a tradition of creating spaces where anyone who wants to lace up can feel welcomed and thrive. The greatest gesture of gratitude we can make is to to take hold of that torch when it passes to us.
- Ravi Singh