Monthly Archives: September 2013

Being a Groupie: a runner’s guide to relationships

Why people run has been cataloged in many places and my friend Jean has been quoted more recently here.  In fact, I was asked just this past week how I got into running by a student. I started rambling about my past and by the time I got finished, I realized that the first reason I run hasn’t changed at all. The world is still chaotic and I still need a sense of control. However, the way I run has changed.

While I used to independently pound down Connecticut Ave in NW DC to the sound of Magneta Lane’s garage rock, or delight in quieter Rock Creek hours spent dictating lesson plans to myself, now I much prefer to find my place among a pack, where others contribute to the mental scenery. In the past year and a half, I’ve gone from strictly running alone, intimidated and anxious about the compatibility of any possible partner, to running with at least one other person 95% of the time.

It might not be a secret that running with someone creates an easy platform to leap from when analyzing friendships–or group dynamics even. And, as with other intimate relationship goings-on, there is a huge difference  (ahem) between doing it alone and doing it with someone else. This guide can help you traverse these tricky trails.

What I’ve [re]discovered: Running with a group or with a partner is a tiny–but serious–relationship in itself, sometimes only lasting as long as your trainers are on, and should be treated as such. Follow these tips to get the most out of your time with a running buddy or group.

1) Risk Management
Regardless of how far or how long you plan on being out, things you should always have when running that come in handy especially when you are running with others: identification, money*, cell phone/GPS transmitter. As a solo runner, it may be obvious that these items can greatly e-ffect the outcome of any possible snags in your running preparation or execution. Having a running buddy does make adventure safer–safety in numbers–but you should still bring the necessities. When running with a partner or with a group this rule is like having protected sex on a date. Failing to bring one of these items will distance immediate solutions to potential health risks. No one is saying that these items are brought because using them is the plan, but not planning to bring them could enable danger.

Case in point: two weeks ago, I went for a 14-mile jog with my fiance and the aforementioned Jean along Chicago’s lake front path (LFP). We ended up not running a door-to-door route and hence, once we had struggled through our last miles, our much-needed post-run protein shakes sat chilling in a refrigerator about a mile away. In pain and dehydrated–we hadn’t carried enough water–we didn’t want to run the extra mile, but we also didn’t want to wait to get something in our bodies. Five minutes spent in a well-known pharmacy and convenience store chain on the walk back and we were three proteined and electrolited smiles by the time we could take our shoes off. While our long-term health wasn’t in extreme danger in this instance, our muscles were glad to have the immediate hydration that some cash made real.

2) Vulnerability with yourself versus vulnerability with others
Regardless of whether you want to be vulnerable or not, running outside is an act of vulnerability. The better you are at being vulnerable, the better the run. Lacing up and stepping out onto the path means you exert against the weather, against time, against other responsibilities and against your own strength to keep going. But make no mistake, running alone is not the same kind of vulnerable as running in a pack or in a pair. When you run with others, you need to accept their vulnerability as a part of the plan while offering your own limits and struggles up to them.

Running in a pair, for instance, can be majorly stressful if neither of you is willing to admit you want to slow down or to speed up or to stop or stretch. These silences can also lead to injury. A greater sense of knowing yourself is needed on buddy-runs because you aren’t just catering to your own goals and limitations. You need to be able to share both with others.

Drew and I have become quite good at this. We talk about plans and routes over several days so there are no surprises. We keep tabs on how each of us are feeling about the upcoming run as well.  However, there are days when I forget to tell her I’m not at all excited about running five miles in the morning (for instance, this moment, as I type) or and she forgets to tell me she is trying to figure out if she can run at the work-gym instead. These can lead to awkward moments or upset feelings, like when your partner is bright eyed and ready to go, giving you no sympathy, while on your end, forcing each eye to stay open feels like throwing a hand full of crushed limestone into a skinned knee. I have been on both ends of this. Remember, your run-buddy can’t help you, motivate you, or give you the tough love you need if she doesn’t know you need it.

3) Have a plan/be flexible
this is similar to the other two mentioned already, but it needs to have its own number anyway. Having a plan isn’t just about carrying the necessities or about communicating your pre- and day-of needs to a buddy. Having a plan means really considering where you will start, where you will finish, where you will place water (or who will carry it) and how much, if you will want or need to stop and where, what you might wear or bring to the start so that you can have it when you’re done…The more you plan with a buddy, the more comfortable you will feel talking on the run and making split decisions if necessary–to ditch the Camelback or add the extra 1/2 loop. In short, “having a plan” is less about being vulnerable and more about being street smart so that when life doesn’t go according to plan, it doesn’t phase you (that much). So much of my relationships (ones that fail and ones that succeed) are about how people plan together and what occurs when the plan isn’t an option anymore. If you can’t compromise on a plan, it’s a sign that you need to find a new buddy.

Being flexible is about understanding the vulnerability of others and incorporating that into your plan, as well as being understanding with yourself when your body is not as willing as your mind. The more flexible you can become, the better the running relationship.

4) You must be willing to share
I’ve already mentioned goals and limitations–but those aren’t the only things you share on a long run. To get the most out of running with someone else, you should leave the mp3 player at home and make time for conversation and intermittent silence. This is bonding time afterall. And this is what turns a gaggle of individuals running in proximity to one another into an actual running group. Until you spot a tree in the distance whose leaves look a little like a jutting eagle beak and have no problem just blurting it out to see if anyone else see it, you are missing out.

Back on the 14-miler a couple of weeks ago, we were running down to Chicago’s Museum Campus–Jean, Drew, and myself. I spotted the Ferris wheel and told them about the first episode of the newer Dr. Who series. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, and Drew mentioned a moment in Men in Black that has a similar concept, which led Jean to think about two things: 1) the new Field Museum exhibit coming up that will have old artifacts from the World’s Fair and 2) the type of dramatic irony used in shows that keeps us yelling at our screens. This conversation was a delight. Had I been wrapped up in Nikki Williams or Bastille, songs I hear too frequently anyway, I would have missed out.

And remember that silences can be a blessing too on a group jog. Running is a real-life moving picture experience, where you can gaze at the sights and people watch, knowing there is a common experience happening that doesn’t need immediate, whispered commentary. Think of it as collecting notes for the after party.


Short Answer

A student asked me recently how I got into running. Knowing that a have an ability to tell a very long (read: boring) story, this is what I wrote back:

I started playing club soccer in 5th grade, and then I did a little cross country and long jump in middle school. I kept playing soccer on the side, not for school, until I was in high school. I didn’t actually really get into running as its own sport/exercise until graduate school. I needed something to help with stress, and I really enjoyed it. Graduate school was exhausting. In the summer time, I was traveling and  teaching so much, that the only free time I had, I spent running. That’s about all I had the money for [!] and I didn’t know the areas where I was stationed that well, so it was a fun adventure going out in the mornings and running around the cities and neighborhoods, getting lost and finding my way back. It made me feel strong and clear-headed. It made me feel independent, and I needed that sense of control in a chaotic life. I guess I still do.

The Live-In Girl

The new school year has started, which means the now-blank tables are pregnant with piles of papers and the amount of sleep I average per week will start to dwindle. What isn’t changing is the fact that I negotiate this shift in seasons with my favorite person, for better or worse, dirty apartment or not.

It was six years ago, this recent August, that I moved to Long Island and into D’s two bedroom, on-campus, staff apartment at Stony Brook University. It was not the first time I’d lived with someone, but it was a bigger relationship risk than I’d ever taken. I was leaving my town (Washington DC), my other best friend, my place teaching at a great school. But it wasn’t all bitter: I was also breaking free of my rent situation with two monsters, starting a new full-time job working with youth, and as mentioned, getting to see the love of my life way more than every third weekend. In short: it was time for change.


This week, admittedly spurred by the “Tall Men With Feelings” episode of Orange is the New Black, I’ve spent some time thinking about what makes long distance relationships work and how to make short-distance relationships (that feel otherwise) also work. I once had a LDR from DC to Osaka, Japan.   When it didn’t work with the overseas girl, it felt inevitable, but when I started seeing a woman in Chicago while I was in DC, nothing felt inevitable. Nothing was.



The first time I lived with a girlfriend had been in DC and it was a bad decision–not the initial move-in, but the start of us dating after that. She and I were close friends. She had been some help after my previous relationship–with Osaka girl–had fallen through. I was in a bad way. And then things got a little worse. After one of my then-roommates in a twenty-something house took the liberty of forcing me to get in his car for a date with him, tossing my phone away, and professing his love for me, I chatted her online, packed a bag, and went to sleep in her second bedroom. Over the next few weeks I slowly moved all of my stuff out of the house while Creep was at work and then I was gone for good. A month or so into living with my friend, she wanted us to move forward. I was hesitant but took the risk even though it felt a lot like defecating where you eat. I enjoyed being around her and the family we were creating with our network of friends. Also, I was broke, sad, and felt like I didn’t much have a choice (but clearly I did). It was selfish; I wasn’t into her as much as she was into me, and I could have saved us each a lot of grief if I had been honest with both of us early on. That’s not what happened. Instead, we ended up dating, moving to a better place in the fall, getting a second cat, and then breaking up the next spring before the lease was up. It wasn’t a long distance relationship, but I think about that particular failure of judgment any time I think about how long distance relationships end–since the beginning of our relationship came on the tails of a failed LDR.


Seven and a half-years after I started seeing that Chicagoan, I’m sipping coffee on a Sunday morning next to her in the third place we’ve lived together. What people don’t talk about when they talk about long-distance relationships is that point when they become not long-distance relationships. When it does work, and how you know it. That instant when you realize that it can’t be long-distance anymore because you miss the person too much in the quiet and small moments of your day. When talking on the phone until 4 or 5AM every night isn’t enough. When you’ve been spending more money than either of you have on weekend trips more frequently than you’d planned. It seems inevitable, looking back, that I would have moved my life to NY, but at the time, it just seemed necessary. There were plenty of things I enjoyed about my life in DC, and plenty of things that made me anxious about moving. But I chose to move. It seemed like the only choice at the time that would keep my life moving up, even if I wasn’t sure what that meant.

Whether you’ve been in a long-distance relationship or not, how or why did you decide to move closer (or move in) with your person?


So it’s another early morning I wake with Drew, make breakfast, have coffee and then she’s out the door for the day and I’m here with two needy cats and a pile or four of work. Most days I jump right in and focus until noon, when I shower or play with the cats or eat lunch, but not today.

Today I have another cup of coffee and do the laundry and think about writing again.  Today, I start a blog.


A couple of weeks back, during week 10 of marathon training,  the long Saturday run was a scheduled 15 miles. Fifteen miles, I thought, is only 1.9 miles longer than I’ve ever run before–1.7 if I count that during one of my half-marathon races, my watch calculated I’d actually gone 13.3. One-point-seven miles seemed very doable, and I thought about it all week long. I thought about it during my morning 7-miler on Wednesday and while I was working on syllabi on Thursday. I thought about how to calculate 15 miles on a road atlas when I was making dinner. I imagined a 15-mile radius around me from a birds-eye view as I did my daily errands, keeping track of how far I’d have to go before my apartment wasn’t in my bubble any more. But I was always safely tethered to home.

On 18 August, my partner and I drove down to a canoe drop on the Des Plaines River Trail about two trail miles north of Old School Forest Preserve. (Most definitely more than 15 miles away from our apartment.) We planned to run to the park (2m), run around the larger outer loop adding the small pond mile (4m), run the inner loop (1.5m), run the fitness loop twice (2m), run the inner loop one more time (1.5m), and run enough of the outer loop to be back at the Des Plaines around mile marker 13 so we could end at the car. Neither of us had been to this park before. We chose it because we wanted to run somewhere we hadn’t already run approximately 45 times before in the three years since we’d lived near the IL-WI border. We also wanted somewhere safe we could leave water bottles on the path, and somewhere with lots of shade. Old School delivered. And yet, despite Old School’s beauty and protection from the sun, while completing our first inner loop–about mile 8–things started to go south.

Traditionally, this is the moment in a half marathon when my mind starts to get the best of me. When I’m at 8 miles, I’ve been running for over 75 minutes, my arches are starting to hurt, my hips have been screaming since mile 5, and I try to console myself with the thought that I only have 5.1 miles left. And then my mental-heart breaks. Five-point-one miles seems very doable when I’ve been running for 2, and impossible when I’ve been running for 8. But not today, not for me at least. My mental-heart is light, so light that I’ve turned off my music and am  just enjoying the scenery and the quiet. The idea running through my head at the time came from Cheryl Strayed’s Wild:

Foot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass, and flowers that bent in the wind, trees, that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The PCT had taught me what a mile was.

For me, training for this marathon was reminding me each day of the lesson I had to keep learning: what it means to run one mile. And jogging under the protection of those woods, while working my way up to the longest I’d ever been out on my feet, I could tell that I was working hard but I was happy.


But at 8 miles, D is not enjoying anything. We stop and talk about it, but she sees no way out of the mental hole and I fail to say the right things. And then I fail to do the right things. We keep pushing into the fitness loop, tension building like a finger pushing into a blown-up party balloon.  We stop three or four more times before we hit 11.5 and decide to go separate ways: me, back on the inner loop and toward the car with that 2-mile stretch of path in the sun through fields and hills, while D opts to keep running more flat fitness loops in the dense part of the woods. We make a plan to meet back up and then we disappear from each other.  Sometimes it is easier to push through something when you are alone–when there is no other option but to rely on yourself.

At this point, I have been thinking about the number 15 all week, but now I’m just thinking about water. I take a long drink from the nearest fountain, run to the next fountain a half mile ahead–my water bottles are all on the outer loop, which is now out of the way. When I see a fountain for the last time before getting on the Des Plaines trail, after I’ve been running for over 2 hours, I tell myself that I won’t need any more water, that I’ll push through and make it. The water bottle back in the car is the foremost image in my mind’s eye. Even though it feels like my body could overheat at any step, I don’t.



This pic was taken by some random Google user, and it is a pretty accurate view of the Des Plaines trail that links up with Old School, about .2 miles from the opening of the park. This field was an ocean of yellow on both sides when I was panting my way through it, looking at my watch. It was here that I took my first steps past the longest distance I’d ever run. In that moment, even though I couldn’t stop to saver it, lest I not be able to get my legs working again, I felt like Sam in Fellowship. The hobbit is intensely aware that if he takes the next step, he will be farther from home than he’s ever been.  It is early in the book, and very early in his journey, but a challenge he must overcome before he can attempt anything else. And then he does. And so did I.

That last hilly stretch after my moment of bliss in the field was primal. I finally stopped thinking about distance and ran toward water. When I reached the car–my watch blinked 15.04 miles. I was beat, but not beaten. I held the button until the display said: END.

During week 11 of marathon training, the long run was 16 miles, and the week-day runs leading up were 4, 8, and 4. I ran my first 4-miler on Tuesday evening, and then got up to run the 8-miler early Wednesday. Afterward, my body knew it was time to stop running. I ended up skipping the second 4-miler, listening to my body and opting for rest. Even though I knew it was the right thing to do, I was sad because it felt like I wasn’t doing my homework and sadder because I felt like I couldn’t do my homework if I tried. I rested up, and D and I ran all 16 miles that Saturday on more familiar ground, together, without music, talking the whole way. While both weeks were challenges to go farther than we’d ever gone, the second week was made easier by the first. We were stronger in many ways. In fact during the 2+hour run, I never once thought about it being the longest run yet–that came later. Out there, in the process, it was simply one mile after the next.

map_DesPlainesRiverTrail (see page 2 for Oak Spring Road and Old School)

map_OldSchool (all the loops)