Locked In A Box Of Runners


Early morning run

(Photo courtesy of Amelia Owens)

Facebook has a place, buried deep in your profile settings, for a favorite quotation. Since I started distance running with groups such as Luke's Locker or Project 214, mine has been an Irish proverb: Giorraíonn beirt bóthar (Two people shorten a road). During the course of my week, I'm surprised at how often I've prefaced "regular life" conversations with "On a run last (Saturday/week/month), I (learned about/someone said) something interesting about…".

Though for most of us during the week, running is a solitary sport, the weekends are different. Here's a secret non-runners really don't suspect: There's a lot of talking on the road.

This situation doesn't happen in cycling, at least not to the same extent. Unless you're tight in a peleton, cyclists are spread out more due to expensive machines, sometimes dramatic speed differences and overall higher average speeds, and traffic considerations. Plus, in my experience they simply aren't as chatty.

Runners, on the other hand, are the most social bunch of folks I've ever hung out with. Non-runners think that, just because they themselves are gasping when they start trotting, we're all breathless. In reality, it's like any other aerobic activity: If you aren't running at 85% of your max heart rate or above, you can talk. And most long runs by definition are performed below that pace.

This means that for the amount of time we're out on a long run – anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours – it's as though we're all locked in a box, forced to either hang out in silence or make conversation to pass the time until the box opens. Unless someone drops out due to injury or exhaustion, we're all there for the duration because we must run back to where we started. 

As a result, you get to spend some quality time with your fellow pace group members. You learn about their lives, jobs, family, car repairs…all kinds of stuff. (Politics and religion are not quite off-limits, but the subjects are generally handled very delicately because you aren't getting out of that box for a while.) 

This can create some odd situations when you get together with your running friends and family or non-running friends: You realize you've already covered volumes of material with your running friends, and so they probably know much more about your other friends and family than these folk recognize. You also find yourself explaining your running friends to everyone else, which can be a little surprising. 

Smart running groups enforce a "no earbuds" policy, or at least only one ear. It's partly for safety, but it's also to build camaderie in the group. Listening to music while running is very popular, but it is very isolating and can also easily become a crutch that people depend on. I'm not much different; when running alone I really like to have music to distract my brain from the zillion things I'm always thinking about. But thanks to long runs with my friends, I can do without. And that's happened to me in two races, so it's good to know you can get by just listening to the footfalls around you if you must. And when you're running a destination race, such as the Colorado Half, aren't you there to experience the environment rather than isolate from it?

Finally, if you look to elite distance runners as exemplars of the sport…how many of them have you seen with earbuds? That should tell you something.

Camaraderie is rarely touted as a running benefit; those fit runners flying over gorgeous territory in article headers are usually solo. But it's a big benefit of group running.