Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I Heart Secret Santa

The following was published as the NH Runner Column in the New Hampshire Union Leader on 12/28/2010.

One of my most practical and personal Christmas gifts this year came from a total stranger.

The arrival of a nondescript package at my office last week didn't mean much at first. But when I looked closer at the address label, a hand-written label without my company name or title and with a return address of Oregon, I became a little more curious.

It had arrived. "It" was a delivery from my Secret Santa.

What made this Secret Santa special was that it was truly a secret. In fact, I may never know who sent me the gift.

I eagerly opened the package, interested to see what someone I've never met would have picked out for me.

Inside I found a personalized poem that mentioned all sorts of things about me - my running and biking, my specific training goals, my involvement in Team In Training. It read in part:

After 2,500 miles and lots of rides and races

I thought your feet might be aching in many places

Instead of an ice bath, enjoy a warm herbal soak

Then pamper your feet with soft socks, like comfortable folk

Wrapped in festive tissue was cozy pair of socks, a bottle of Peppermint foot cream and a small black bag that was heavier than I expected. I examined the simple label: Endurasoak.

I've never used Endurasoak, and in fact, have never heard of it. It's a salt and mineral mixture to be mixed in a warm bath to help with muscle recovery.

It's a gift only a runner would like. And only a runner would give.

The Secret Santa gift was part of a light-hearted game set up by the folks at dailymile, an online community for athletes.

I joined dailymile on New Year's Eve last year, mostly as a way to have an easy way to track my training and miles. What I found during the past year, however, is more advice, camaraderie, support and motivation than I ever would have expected.

Dailymile, which was created by a New Hampshire native, is best described as a Facebook for athletes, a place that runners, cyclists and tri-athletes meet together in cyberspace to talk about their common interests. Like Facebook, each user has an individual page and builds a group of friends.

What separates dailymile from Facebook is that these "friends" are people that I probably won't ever meet, although I've had face-to-face encounters with a few of the local users and I regularly see dailymile meet-ups being organized around the country.

Seeing an endless stream of training sessions posted, from the one-mile walk on a treadmill to a grueling 20-mile run or a long ride on a bike, is motivating.

These friends don't think you're crazy when you get up to run on a snowy morning, and they offer unwavering encouragement when you set your goals. They've had those same I-want-to-quit conversations with themselves. They know the value of a little push and encouragement from a friend.

When I saw the posting for the dailymile Secret Santa, I hesitated. I mean, I've interacted with these people all year, but they were just virtual friends. Would a tangible gift and interaction offline cross the line into real-life?

My curiosity and need to be part of the group got the best of me and I signed up, using my work address. (After all, just because these people were supportive fellow runners, didn't mean it made sense to give out my home address online.)

A few days later, I received my match. I did a little research on the runner who would be the recipient of my gift. She was in training for her first marathon, lives in the Buffalo, N.Y. area and wore a tutu at a recent race. (For the Secret Santa reveal - click here.)

There are probably a thousand more creative gifts I could have gotten her, but I hope that the stainless steel water bottle emblazoned with "I (heart) running" made her smile when she got it in the mail.

As DMers received their gifts, pictures started getting posted. Running hats, energy gels, iTunes gift cards, flashing safety lights and runner-specific cookbooks were among the items picked out by the Secret Santas across the country. All of them, of course, immediately posted in picture form on the site.

The Secret Santa adventure added a new dimension to my lovefest with dailymile.

It made me realize that these people were just like me. They put in their miles, focused on their goals and had a ton of fun doing it. They did things that most of their real-life friends would never do.

I can't wait to spend another year training with them, learning from them and, hopefully next Christmas, shopping for something extra special for them.

**REMEMBER, I'm running the Boston Marathon to help save lives!**

Please visit my fundraising page to support a good cause and learn more about a very special little boy. http://pages.teamintraining.org/ma/boston11/trobinsy2v. Thank you for your support!

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