Don't talk to me. Don't look at me. And for the love of Gu, don't get in my way.
That basically sums up my approach to my early years of running. This was a solitary sport, a break from workplace toxicity and the ping of emails. In parks and on uneven concrete roads, I made the rules, and rule number one was: I'm a lone wolf, baby.
But things change. Becoming a work-from-home freelancer can make anyone a little hermetic. And running became yet another activity where I was hanging out alone.
Don't get me wrong. I love being alone more than Trump loves a dumb soundbite. I'm an INFJ personality type to the core. But long winters can be especially isolating, and I needed a compelling reason to keep up my running routine. So this year I embarked on the unthinkable: I decided to run with strangers.
Beginning in January, I dragged myself up and out to meet fellow runners and New York Road Runners trainers every Thursday at 6:30 a.m. in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Yes, it was cold. Yes, there was fog and rain and flurries. And yes, it was glorious. Seriously. No sarcasm. Here's how I fell in love.
Accountability is everything
Even if I somehow guinea-pigged my way into being a morning person, there is still no way I could have convinced myself to leave the house in 20-degree weather. Previously, plans for an a.m. run would turn into a post-lunch run, which might be pushed to an after-dinner run, and then, Oh look, it's midnight and time for bed and I still didn't run. Too bad, zzzzz. Knowing people are waiting for you—and then running seven miles before 7:30 a.m.—squashes that internal debate.
There are literally one million things to talk about other than work
The best part about group training is meeting people whose paths you'd normally never cross. Younger, older, veterans, newbies. You talk about out-of-town races or what type of foam roller to buy or how Daylight Saving Time is a cruel saboteur. No one asks, "So, what do you do?" Because here, at the crack of dawn, everyone has the same answer: "I run."
Ditching headphones is a power play
When I say I need music—or, lately, podcasts played at 1.5x speed—to support my runs, I'm serious. My Bluetooth pair once died during a 10K and I unleashed an expletive so loudly that mothers covered their children's ears. So leaving headphones at home on the first morning of group training felt like a horrifying, absentminded mistake, like I'd forgotten to shave my legs or catch up on Instagram. But turns out when you don't have Lukas Graham singing or an entrepreneur droning in your ears, runs actually do become meditative.
You'll witness prime examples of #marriagegoals
I've known guys who told me running is boring, stupid, even dangerous. (Turns out they were all those things, and lazy to boot.) So after meeting a husband-and-wife duo who showed up every week to run and encourage each other and everyone else, I thought...wow. So that's what support looks like.
Scary things become totally bearable
Despite running two marathons, I'd somehow managed to skirt hill repeats and any real interval training. (Not recommended.) Structured runs felt intimidating: How fast should I go? How long? And what's a real 'hill' anyway? But grueling workouts are much more tolerable when 20 other people are sweating through them with you. You nod at each other when you go up the hill, nod when you go down. You grunt some support. Suddenly time flies by.
Having pacers is a game-changer
Numbers just don't stick for me. I still can't tell you my fastest 5K time without looking it up. This also means I'm unable to hold a steady pace. All that changed when the trainers told us to do tempo runs at 70 to 80% effort, or sprints at 90% effort, and so on. And when I was surrounded by people who actually knew how to pace themselves, I could aim to match them stride for stride.
People who plank together stay together
No big secret here: most runners don't love core work. Or strength training. Or exercise that doesn't involve wind rushing over their gloriously sweaty faces. Which is exactly why our coaches had us do five minutes of planks and triceps dips after every hard run. But it's comforting to see that everyone has shaky limbs and shallow breathing — and it's much more fun to groan as a group when Coach Steve inevitably says, "Jump squats!"
Finding runners is easier than creating runners
I've spent many hours asking (okay, begging) friends to do weekend races, and evangelizing the benefits of a good run, but even when people were game, I'd often feel more like a fitness bully than an encouraging friend. Now, instead of asking people to re-prioritize their lives around running, I've found similar crazies who already do, eliminating my awkward and desperate pleas to "C'mon, let's go for a two-miler? Or just one? Please let's just run around the block together?!"
Other peoples' injuries become your own
I'm not talking about getting phantom limb pains, although who knows, that could happen. ("Your IT band is wonky? Actually, mine is feeling tight now...") When you're with a group, you start to realize that, uh, yeah, this thing we do is actually kind of hard. Someone else's injury reminds you to be grateful for every pain-free run. Or when you're tired and achy, the group's there to pick you up. You feel like a member of a cult. Did I say cult? I meant family.
You will get faster
Although the point of interval and tempo sessions is to improve speed and endurance, even I was surprised by my improvements. But I don't think it was all me. Or even mostly me. Here's the trick. When you run with other people, you have someone to chase — and someone to chase you. It's not even competitive. You've made a commitment together. You're up. You're out. You're going to go hard. And after the dry-heaving's over, you'll smile, slap a few high-fives, and get on with your day, grateful for the experience.
I guess what I'm trying to say is...anyone wanna go for a run?