The Joy of Communal Running
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
The crunch of gravel echoes through the trees and tall grasses. The drumming of shoes on boardwalk planks breaks the afternoon quiet as we flow like minnows around another bend in the trail. Our leader, Amy, exchanges lively conversation with others behind her. The fifth of six in our group, I don’t hear what she says, but I’m grateful for the noise. The sound of my shaky breathing and the drone of Amy’s conversation up ahead make me forget how tired my legs are, make me ignore the slight burn in my quads. Just keep moving. We’re all in this together.
Role models come in all forms. A teacher. A parent. A sibling. A stranger. Sometimes a celebrity speaks to us most clearly, or a child out of nowhere says something or does something profound that inspires us, a nation, the world.
For me, one of my biggest role models is a community. The people who make up this community each have their own experiences, their own lives, dreams, worries, challenges, and triumphs. Sometimes they talk about these things openly. Other times they leave everything behind on an open road, under a blue sky, or (admittedly, rarely) in a wooded copse on a summer trail. This is a community brought together through a shared experience and hobby: running.
Amy is one of my mentors-turned-friends. An accomplished Ironman finisher, she’s guided me on many runs over the years and inspired me to always strive for my best. I remember her coaching me in an intermediate running group a few years ago. I was probably doing as much if not more huffing and puffing, and definitely more swearing. As we sprinted down the biking lane around a familiar neighborhood park, she’d list off some of her running accomplishments. Listening to her, I was inspired. I also had a dream of one day reaching the goal of a half marathon distance, which seemed impossible at that time. Now I’m holding back my slight irritation at how effortless she moves, leading the group through the trees, all of the rest of us gritting our teeth but emboldened by the cooler breeze and grateful for the longer daylight hours. I’m sure we’re running at a dizzying pace, but my watch assures me we are doing just fine. I keep focusing on Amy’s voice, the sound of my friends around me, the twists and turns in the gravel road, and allow myself to get lost in the moment and the wildlife flourishing around me. Don’t focus on the distance. Focus on the now.
I started running in June 2015. New to the area, I had seen the seemingly life-changing effects a run group could have on one of my coworkers. Over the course of a few months, she became more bubbly, encouraging, and she never stopped talking about running. I asked her about her motivation and she directed me to a Learn to Run program at a local running store. I was curious and thought I’d give an information session a try.
I’d dabbled in sprinting short distances and running headlong into people on the soccer field in middle school and high school, but beyond that I’d had no experience with—and certainly no love for—the sport. Lasting visions of me trailing dead last behind my soccer team as we circled our school at the start of practice sent a big red flag to me. Did I really want to put myself through that?
Running was a “white noise” word my parents had bandied about when I was growing up. Whenever it was spoken, I’d sadly tune out. It was my dad’s hobby. It was something he just did. In our household, he would always make time to run, usually soon after my siblings and I got home from school, or early in the morning on weekends. He’d tried to get us to join him a few times, but we all refused. His hobby was his thing. No one else was interested. (One of my biggest regrets to this day is that I’ve never seen my dad run a race, although I’ve had the chance to run with him since, and it’s so wonderful sharing that passion with him.)
Listening to my coworker gush about the run group, I thought just maybe I could possess some magical running enthusiasm and, daresay, talent. Family genes could be in my favor, right?
Putting my high school nightmares aside, I signed up for the Learn to Run group and embarked on 14 weeks of, well, learning to run. At first, it seemed like a joke to me. We ran for 30 seconds and walked for much of the rest of the time. I’d developed decently strong legs from spending 3 years living and working in Edinburgh, Scotland, and didn’t need the extremely slow introduction to running the program dictated. As the L2R session progressed, though, I started to enjoy the experience. Run intervals increased. It became tougher. I liked the challenge running presented and the opportunities it gave me to meet new people. Truthfully, that was the best thing about the group: the people. There were older adults, people my age, veteran runners returning after injury, and even some young adults. Every person I spoke to was an inspiration to me. When a mentor said they’d run 5 half marathons, I was in awe. How could anyone run that far?
Focus on the now. This was the only thing I allow myself to repeat as we barrel over another boardwalk, getting further away from the parking lot and nearing mile 2. This is a 6-mile run, so I know I have to get comfortable with the discomfort I’m experiencing and push aside those distress signals my quads are making me believe I’m feeling. Why had I run so many miles the night before? Why had I done the speed work? Why wasn’t I resting today? OK, I tell myself. On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is this? Sigh. 3. We continue on. Instead of the irritation in my legs, I make my way nearer the front of the pack to listen to Amy’s story. She and another friend are talking about different bicycling opportunities in the area. Good. Focus on that.
It was through the program I realized how transformative and supportive a running community like this one could be. I met people like Amy, Red, and so many others who each came with their own stories, their own struggles, their own hopes. With their help, I completed many new running distances—my first 5K, first 5 miles, a 10K, then 13.1, and finally 26.2. I even helped some of them reach their goals.
Alongside me, my friend Red is quiet. Usually, we enjoy easy conversation together, but today we are both struggling to go one more step. We won’t admit it until later, of course, and instead continue hanging on to the edge of our sanity. I have a feeling if I look at her we’ll both give in to the temptation to stop. Amy and our pack keep moving. We keep following, our rhythm through the trees flowing more easily. The more we run, the more my legs begin to feel better, and the more I want to keep pushing myself and my friends through to the end.
A lot of people start running on their own. I started with a pack and for the most part, I’ve stuck to it, taken hold of opportunities to mentor and volunteer, and all the while I’ve developed the closest friendships I’ve ever had. Someone once described the communal running experience as like the bond shared by Marines. We might not go through wars or battle with actual death on the line every day, but we fight all sorts of conflicts with ourselves, our bodies, our minds. We pull each other through tough moments, and celebrate the great ones.
We all have varying degrees of love/hate relationships with this sport. We know we’ll likely never be elite, maybe never even place in an age group until we’ve outlived most of our competition, and we are OK with that. We embrace the experience. We better ourselves. Even when we don’t want to, we all keep pushing each other to go on. One more mile. Another. Most importantly, we all keep showing up, and in the end, we are grateful for the moments shared together (and the breakfasts consumed shortly after our morning weekend runs!).
Up ahead, other runners breeze past us. We all offer our usual “runner wave” and “hellos.” The morale increases with every step, every smile, every word exchanged with others out there doing exactly what we’re doing: getting outside and embracing the road. Soon, two miles becomes three, and four, and five, and suddenly the end is so close I can almost taste it. I surge ahead, my legs no longer feeling like lead but rather they’re wings lifting me off the ground. I’m now alongside Amy. The pack follows. We pull ahead. I want us to fly to the finish and revel in the joy of accomplishing what we’ve set out to do. “Almost done, guys!” I offer. The pace picks up. Soon, we’re bursting through the trees, meeting pavement as we spill out from the trail to the parking lot. The bustle of park noise—softball games, baseball games, playground games—hits us like a wall, the Narnian silence in the woods quickly replaced, snapping us back into reality. The beep of watches being stopped greets me. High fives abound. “Awesome job!”
The great thing about communal running is tackling any obstacle or frustration as one. I’ve learned about my friends’ deepest passions, dreams, and secrets. I’ve helped them through some tough decisions, and I’ve shared many of my personal stories. In some respects, these people know me better than my own family.
Running is much more than a sport. Grounded in a welcoming community, it’s an offer to connect with another, not only over PRs, shared races, or shared goals, but also on a spiritual plane. Souls bond out on the road, in the still morning air or in the flurry of an evening run in the city. It’s the joy of accomplishment and camaraderie that ignites us, and gets us to do such crazy things like train for a half, a full, or an ultra marathon. As dedicated communal runners, through it all we keep pushing forward, together, one step after another.