(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)
2011. Even in today’s seemingly marathon-crazed climate, it can be hard to find someone in everyday life who speaks marathoner language. A friend asks, “How long is your marathon this time?” A spouse wonders, “Why would you want to put yourself through this more than once?” A co-worker wants to know afterward, “Did you win?” Attempts at explanation are lost on them.
This helps explain why runners seek each other out to train together. They hunger for someone who understands and appreciates what they do, and can and will talk about it for hours at a time. Which also helps explain the popularity of marathon training groups. Runners might come together at first for the program and its coach, but they stay together because the miles add up faster with congenial companions than they do alone.
I guide such a training group. Our finish rate is near-perfect, and not because our program is better than any of a dozen others available online. Mine covers the basics of distance, speed and recovery in the usual ways. It works well because the runners follow through with it. They show up each week because a no-show would disappoint their friends. One runner told me, “I would have been asleep had it not been for the date we have every Sunday.”
Some runners arrive as ready-made mini-teams. We’ve had combinations of husband-wife, mother-daughter, father-daughter, sister-sister and brother-sister, as well as inseparable friends (neither of whom would show up without the other). I never assign pace groups, yet they form naturally. Hardly anyone runs alone here unless by choice.
That’s my choice: not to run with this team or any of its individuals. This isn’t because I’m now such a match for these marathoners, when my “long” run is their short, and my “fast” their slow. I run alone because we aren’t alike in another way. I spend much of each day talking with runners, either in person and electronically. Running is my quiet time – a time away from all voices, live and recorded.
Please don’t misread me here. I love runners, and especially marathoners. I love seeing them at Dick Beardsley’s and Jeff Galloway’s camps each summer, and at several marathon finish lines each year. I love watching the fastest ones win (and don’t envy them too much for their endurance, stamina and youth).
I love the slowest for whatever they can do. I love coaching and advising any runner who asks for help. I love reading about runners, sending email back and forth with them, celebrating their successes and commiserating over their setbacks. I love talking with them while standing or sitting still, while choosing not to run with them.
Whenever any runner, known to me or not, passes in the opposite direction, I offer a cheery “good morning,” a wave, a nod, sometimes even a hand slap. When the greeting is returned, the day brightens a bit (or darkens a little when the passing runner refuses even to make eye contact).
But if another runner falls into step with me and wants to stay there, I reach into a bag of old tricks to keep us from staying together. I say, “This is where I turn back,” even when not intending to reverse course just then. Or I say, “Don’t let me slow you down,” while slowing further down myself. Or I simply slow to a walk, a normal break for me but one that few other runners will allow themselves.
The reasons why I’m a loner runner range from historical (reaching back to a time when runners were few and very far between, and if you didn’t run alone you didn’t run much), to practical (never needing to plan a meeting time or place, or to run at someone else’s pace), to professional (already spending a good part of each day discussing the sport without doing more of that while running). But the best reason is personal.
George Sheehan, running’s greatest writer, said he ran for three reasons: “contemplation, conversation and competition.” I’m down to the first of those three. Competition is past, and conversation happens elsewhere. Now I run mostly for the contemplation. The run provides the best block of time each day for quiet, uninterrupted thought. Like Dr. Sheehan, I “write” then, collecting lines to type later.
Later. I quickly add that my most memorable run of 2010 was an exception to all of the above. Most of my runs are good but almost immediately forgettable. Not this one, which was a year in the making.
In 2009 a Dick Beardsley camper named Steve from Illinois asked, “Can I run with you some morning?” I successfully ducked him that week and figured he would forget this request by the next camp. He remembered the rain-check and on his bio page completed the statement, “My camp experience will be successful if…” with, “I go for a morning run with Joe.”
Another camper, Larry, wrote that his experience would be better if “Joe will go for a run with me.” I sensed a movement taking shape. So instead of resisting, I announced at my talk to the campers, “Anyone who run with me tomorrow morning is welcome… as long as you’re willing to do it on my terms.” Which were: “You agree to go my distance, which is short for you marathoners, at my pace, which is the slowest will ever go. You’ll take walk breaks, maybe for the first time. And you’ll ignore distance and go by time.”
I thought, and maybe hoped, these warnings would dissuade everyone except Steve and Larry. Maybe they too now realized how pedestrian my running was and would skip out too. But at the appointed hour that Friday morning I was surprised and not unpleased to find a dozen campers joining me. None complained (at least to me) that this run-walk, where we all stayed together for an hour, was too short or slow. If nothing else, it assured they would start the next day’s half-marathon race well rested.
I enjoyed our conversation enough to try it again. In about a year. After spending a few hundred more runs in contemplation, which is not a team sport.
(Photo: Dick Beardsley got me out of my loner ways and into talking during runs at his training camp.)
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Personal Records, Run Gently Run Long, Running A to Z, Running With Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, The Running Revolution and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]