The fellowship of the run

Sitting in the lobby of my gym, I wondered who might show. I quit scrolling through Twitter long enough to check the weather. Twenty-six degrees with an 8 mph north wind. It was close to sunset, and truth be told, I wouldn’t be surprised if no one showed up for the night’s planned group run. Besides, it was Friday night. Don’t people have anything better to do on a Friday night?

But a few minutes later, Jen showed up. Tall, lean, and every bit that you’d expect from a marathoner. Minutes later, here came Donald. In his youth, he ran cross-country to stay in shape during soccer’s offseason. A decade later, old habits gave him a new incentive to get back on the road. It would be just the three of us, stumbling out into the cold, ready to tackle a planned five-mile out-and-back.

We walk for a block, get the blood working, and take off out of downtown, chatting it up as the first mile got underway. We’re a small group. But given all the reasons not to be there, I’d call us small-but-mighty.

***

Years ago, I didn’t like running. It was time-consuming, uncomfortable, and far less fun than a game of hoops. But that changed over time, largely when I discovered some of the benefits that running imparts.

For starters, it’s a great way to blow off steam. Run yourself ragged for 30 minutes, or an hour, or four hours, and you’ll likely come back having exorcised a few of the daily demons. In their place is normally an endorphin rush most people call a “runner’s high.” Most of us feel it when we’re done; a lucky few enjoy it as they go. I usually fall into the former camp, but it’s good enough to keep me coming back.

Running is also great for people who need some time alone. You know who you are. People are great, but there are moments when they need to be held at bay. Pound out a few miles and you get just that.

Being the type of person who is comfortable in solitude, I usually run alone. This is not sad or otherwise detrimental. It just is. Fact is, most people run solo.

But there are merits to having a running buddy. Or buddies. You can learn from other runners, and push each other. I find that I usually run faster when in a group and get lazy when I’m on my own.

A few years back, I joined a weekly trail running group. I knew precisely none of the two-dozen or so people who were there. But I ran with them, got to know a few of them, and picked up a lot of knowledge about trail running and our local trails. When we were done, we’d all head to a burrito place, snag some tacos and down a beer or two. Some of that group became friends, folks I can still hang out with even though I can’t go to those group runs anymore.

The fast runners were the ones everyone looked up to. Or those who had a few hundred-mile ultras under their belts. Often, these were the ones leading the groups, usually broken down into different paces to suit whoever showed up. Whoever they were, there was a sense of accomplishment that followed them. It was understood. They were “qualified” to lead a group on those gnarly, twisty trails, regardless of pace.

Years later, one of the trainers at my gym, an ex-college track guy with the resume of a serious distance runner, asked me if I would like to lead a weekly run group. “Sure,” I said. “I’d love to.”

But keep in mind, I’m about as pedestrian as they get when it comes to running. No podium finishes. No hundo belt buckles. Just a smattering of mid-pack finishes in races between 5K and marathon distance. If anyone ran with me, I wouldn’t be shocked if they thought, “Lame” and never came back.

But we’re more than a month into it, and folks still come. It’s funny to me that anyone actually shows up. That is, they show up to run with me. But I’m glad they do. Running is great solo. But it’s also great with good company.

***

A few weeks back, Donald and I were on the back side of a five-miler when we got to discussing a mutual love of hiking. He started talking about a trip years back when he was ascending Mount Elbert in Colorado, the highest peak in that state and the second-highest in the Lower 48. It’s a mountain I summited many years ago, back in 2005. We groaned about the numerous false summits we encountered, and he went on to describe how he and his hiking partners had to high-tail it down the mountain on the account of an approaching storm.

Yup, I can recall similar instances in the Rockies.

A week later, when Jen joined us, she started talking about a recent four-day excursion she and her boyfriend took to the Grand Canyon. I marveled a little that three random people seemed to have an affinity for outdoor adventure. But I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Lots of runners also hike, climb, backpack and otherwise find themselves drawn toward the suffering and joy of pushing themselves outdoors, be it on the run or with a 50-pound pack on their backs.

More important, though, is the manner in which I’ve gotten to know people’s stories. I knew Jen as a runner, and know her now as a backpacker, but she’s also a mother of a daughter getting ready to graduate college. Donald was an Eagle Scout back in his younger days.

And there are others. Paige, one of our younger runners, competed in college cross-country and is a die-hard Patriots fan (I try not to hold that against her). Steve, our elder statesman, isn’t just an accomplished trail runner. He’s a Pikes Peak Marathon finisher.

I never would have known anything about these people had I not run with them. I wouldn’t know them at all if I wasn’t a runner.

***

The last run I led just a few days ago, another new runner joined us. Her name is Kathy, and like Jen, she’s been at this running thing for a while and can hold her own. And she’s also the mother of a soon-to-be college grad.

I promised the group a scenic run, which is code for “I’m going to make you run to the top of the biggest hills in Tulsa because I find this weirdly fun.”

I try to plan routes that I think people will enjoy, ones with some scenery, some history, or maybe both. Other times, I’ll take them on a route I use for training, with the idea that if this sort of route helped me in one of the local races, it might help them, too.

That night’s “scenic route” took us north out of downtown, toward a college campus, and then up a sizable rise called Standpipe Hill. It’s one of the highest points in the city, and once you top out, it has a spectacular view of downtown. The sun was going down, setting the clouds overhead afire with yellows, oranges and purples, a colorful background against the shiny glow of the skyscrapers a mile to our south. The city was putting on a visual show.

“I like to stop here and catch my breath and take in the view,” I told the group. “It never gets old.”

Everyone seemed to agree. In Kathy’s case, she saw parts of the city she’d heard of, but had never seen with her own eyes. It’s an all-new experience, and in this case, one you must earn. I know I earn it every time I run this route (the hill is steep), and it never disappoints.

A few moments later, we headed down the hill, climbed another, then dropped back down into downtown’s meandering streets. One steep overpass, then another hill, and finally a quick dash back to the gym and we’re done. High-fives were exchanged before the group broke up and headed out into our own lives. But not before everyone made a little pact.

“See you next week?”

Absolutely.

Bob Doucette

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