I have always been a solo runner. I trained for and ran my first marathon totally alone. I didn’t know there was a running community. I didn’t know that running groups really existed in the numbers that they do, or that there were people as slow as I was at the time. I didn’t even really know about running stores, now that I think about it. Chadd actually took me to the Georgetown Running Store after my face went numb following my first 15 mile run (I didn’t know about Gu or that perhaps running with Gatorade was a good idea). Please don’t ask how I got myself marathon-deep without knowing any of this. I ran my first marathon in a cotton, long-sleeve shirt.
I valued the time alone. When I was training that first time around, I was struggling through the aftermath of a rough break-up, a full college course load, and work. I “wrote” a lot of the creative fiction required for my English degree on the Capital Crescent Path. I listened to the same playlist for hours on end. I cried or swore my way through that final mile more times than not.
I was afraid to run with other people. I was sure everyone was so much faster than I was; that they never stopped to walk, that I would only ruin their run. I ran once or twice with a co-worker. She was gracious enough to run with me and pretend that I wasn’t pulling her back (I most certainly was). I read articles in Runners’ World about the companionship of running partners, but I felt that these people were the elites, the dedicated, the run-in-ice-and-snow types. I was not.
I trained for a second marathon, again, by myself. A lot of lonely hours spent on the Capital Crescent trail went by, and by the time it was over, I had PRed, but not met my sub-four goal. My same running friend had jumped in to run the last 6 miles with me (a gift I can never repay – I’d not have finished without her). And yet, I still didn’t want to run with people, despite that race-saving experience.
When I signed up for my third marathon, I was still without a running group, without a coach, without a running partner. One thing I did have was a massive, terrifying goal: a sub-4 marathon. I had pulled my original 4:22 to a 4:10, but I was inconsistent, not committed, and again – alone. Running alone had gone from a private, joyful experience to a self-contained torture.
Then I met Coach T. Then I went to track practice. I was still alone – not fast enough to be with one group, but not slow enough for the pack right behind them. Alone, surrounded by others. It was at least a step in the together-ness direction.
Then I had my first long run as instructed by Coach T. I drove to Peirce Mill with all of my running gear. I had my Gu, my hand fuel belt, my calf sleeves (though I don’t think I used them). I didn’t have a Garmin, or even a digital watch. Victoria had told me that she’d be at the long run and she, too, had about 10 miles to go through. My palms were sweating the whole way to the meet-up. Could I make it through 10 miles pacing with someone? What if I couldn’t keep up? What if I had to walk?
Instead, Victoria stayed with me. She encouraged me up and down the hills along Rock Creek Parkway. She let me pause to eat a Gu on the way back, but that was it. Running with her, I realized I COULD do 10 miles without stopping and that it didn’t feel bad. In fact, it felt good. Really good. Like I could do this again, and again, and again, good. But we didn’t very often – our training schedules were wildly different for the majority of 2012.
Fast forward almost a year.
We planned to race Myrtle Beach Marathon together along with Rachel. More accurately put, they convinced me to join them. It became a beacon to me while I was unemployed. I have to get up because I have to run with my partners. Saturday morning runs with Rachel and Victoria became one of the few things that I actually did with regularity and excitement.
I got home from Atlanta after Christmas, slept terribly, listening to the wind blowing in a snow and ice storm the last weekend of the year. My alarm went off and I headed to the park. I’d fumbled my way through my morning - couldn’t find my Gus, or my handheld water belt, or my watch, and my Garmin was dead. But there was Victoria, standing there in the fog next to Coach, the rest of the group gone out for their runs.
Off we went. We only had 12 miles this morning, but the distance felt insurmountable. The air was heavy with what would soon be rain, ice, and snow.
The first few miles, we caught up on traveling for the holidays – our families, my new job, gossip from Twitter – then we fell silent. The weather had kept many people at home; we rapidly became the road's only inhabitants.
At the turn-around point, the rain began to fall.
Per usual, I stopped briefly to eat a Gu, then we began the trek home.
The weather picked up and turned to something between water and solid. My thighs were stinging with the rain and sleet. My gloves and hat were becoming water-logged and I could feel my socks absorbing any precipitation that my spandex had shed. But our bodies felt good, despite the elements. We had to pace check several times (something Victoria does since she reliably monitors her Garmin).
The only things I heard for the next few miles were the sounds of the weather falling through the branches around us, our quiet, matched footsteps, hushed exhalations from our mouths that turned to steam, and the calm, working beats of my own heart. I had a brief second imagining that our bodies were machines, or horses, with the seemingly unending ability to run the distance. This is a rare, silent moment of intense beauty that life sometimes gives you.
The rain turned to snow.
Our conversation picked up again to topics that build a friendship, or perhaps better than that – a running partnership. We ran through serious discussions as we did miles. The last three miles, we built faster and faster, silent again, intent on finishing strong, despite the weather. Sometimes, the silent miles are the most powerful, lost in your own thoughts, but unconsciously aware that you are, in fact, not alone.
A note: I've written, re-written, and started from scratch this essay more than I can count. It's been sitting, lonely in a word document since the afternoon after that snowy run. Despite how much effort I've put into it, I still can't find the appropriate words to describe the importance of this run and of running partners - particularly mine - but I couldn't let it sit anymore without the moment slipping further and further from thought. I feared that the more I wrote and rewrote, the more I would lose the truthfulness of that morning. Apologies to Victoria for any embarrassment this may have caused outing her as my running partner.