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.


3 thoughts on “Being a Groupie: a runner’s guide to relationships

  1. Yep, Nick! You hit the nail on the head with a lot of these. I’m glad you added the bit about it being okay to have some intermittent silence through runs – sometimes, when I hit that “perfect pace,” I can find myself wandering in my own thoughts, not even realizing I’m still running. That being said, I love being pulled back to the experience by my running partner(s) – a simple, “whatcha thinkin'” sparks a whole new conversation, and the miles can just seem to float away.

  2. Love it.
    I have also always been a sole runner – because i liked my “me” time, because I felt unfomfortable about having to match pace with another person, because running always felt like it was supposed to be solo. These days im learning about how fun it can be. The rare times that I get to run with my partner feel like tiny dates. My CARA marathon training groups allow me time with strangers who run, and our time (you and drew and I) on these long runs has been as enjoyable and rewarding as our time together conversing over beers. 🙂
    Also, I just saw a guy on the news who ran a marathon backwards while juggling. In 6 hours. #comeon

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