The makings of a social runner

15 Nov

As of yesterday morning, I am an official paid-up member of the Rouge River Roadrunners.  Joining a running club is quite a big departure from my former way of thinking, simply because it means that my long Sunday runs will no longer be solo ventures.  I used to do all of my running alone, primarily by choice.  I liked the idea of mapping out my own routes, getting to run to the beat of music in my ears, and being beholden to no-one but myself on my runs.  After all, half the point of running was to get out and be by myself for a change.

So what happened?  How did I evolve into this being who actually craves company on runs?  I mean, I like my solitude, and I get so little of it.  I have a little bit of social awkwardness.  It is not easy for me to meet and get to know new people, and conversation does not come naturally to me – not unless I know the person I am conversing with very well.  It seems kind of weird that I, of all people, would turn into somebody who needed a group of people to run with.

The metamorphosis started maybe six months ago, when I was training for my 2010 Run for Autism.  Since I was on the organizing committee for the Geneva Centre for Autism, I befriended some of the people there and we created an informal running group.  We started meeting up for a run every Wednesday after work, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying the company.  I felt that I had struck a nice balance between running alone and running with a group.

Shortly before the half-marathon, I found that my Sunday long runs were getting a little stale.   I was varying my routes a little bit, but I was sticking to the same general neighbourhoods, and I was getting bored.  I found myself hitting a plateau.  My fitness and endurance levels were definitely improving, but I wasn’t really making great gains on my average pace.  All runs longer than about twelve kilometres were starting to feel a bit tedious, and I started incorporating as many twists and turns in my routes as I could, just for the sake of variety.

About a month ago, I was wasting time on the Internet late at night when I couldn’t sleep, and purely by accident I came across a website for the Rouge River Roadrunners.  I had never heard of this group before, and the name suggested that they might be local.  I looked up their contact information, and sure enough, their meeting spot turned out to be a community centre less than five minutes’  drive from where I live.  Before I really knew what I was doing, I sent an email off to the primary contact, asking for more information.

Several emails and a couple of phonecalls later, I agreed to meet the group for one of their Sunday runs.  When I arrived and started talking to the other runners, I started getting very nervous.  All of them – bar none – are experienced marathoners who have been running for at least fifteen years (without a great big gaping seven-year gap in the middle like I had).  They are fitter than me, they are faster, they have run more races.  To me, a 10km run is a decent distance.  To them, it’s a walk in the park.

Was I going to keep up with these people?  I had my doubts, especially when we started out at a pace slightly faster than what I am used to.  Since I would rather set my face on fire than admit that these runners might be too fast for me, I kept pace with them from the beginning.  When we’d been going for about half a kilometre, the man running next to me (who is almost 70 and in the kind of shape I was in when I was 25) asked me about my last race.

Cripes.  Not only was I running faster than usual for a long run, now I had to talk while I was doing it?  Whoever said that it costs nothing to be polite was lying.  Being polite can cost you your breath if you’re doing it while running with a bunch of gazelles.  But I didn’t exactly have a choice.  I was raised in a nice home and taught to be courteous no matter what.  I briefly considered the “no matter what”  part of the equation, and then answered my fellow runner’s questions.  To my complete surprise, my answer came out sounding normal. I didn’t sound as if I was about to pass out.  I sounded like someone having a normal conversation.

We continued chatting, and about half an hour later I realized to my astonishment that not only was I keeping up with these people, I was actually feeling OK.   I was not fighting for breath. My legs did not feel as if they were about to fall off.  I did not feel like a walrus among gazelles.

We finished the run, and fuelled by a feeling of accomplishment, I joined the other runners for a post-run coffee and then promised to join them again the following week.  That happened to be yesterday – a somewhat grey, somewhat rainy, somewhat windy day.  We met in the designated spot, and as we hopped around trying to stay warm, we debated where and how far we would run.  One of the runners cheerfully said, “Let’s find a route with lots of hills!”  Imagine my relief when someone else said that she had done hills the previous day and needed a flat route.  She suggested a route along the waterfront trail.  The rest of us agreed, and we set off.

Three kilometres later, I was thinking to myself, “Yikes!  This is flat???”  We were going up and down hills as if we were a bunch of yo-yo’s on steroids.  I was keeping pace, but this time I was not talking, and my legs were starting to burn.  I did what I always do when the running gets tough: I started to count.  Not out loud, of course.  Silently, in my head.  It’s a little trick I have that seems to get me through those little running bumps.  I count in time to my steps.  Sure enough, after about three minutes of this I found myself settling into a rhythm and enjoying myself.

This run was definitely harder than last week’s, but I kept pace with the other runners and finished feeling good.  And I realized that I had made a discovery: on all of those solo long runs that I did before, I underestimated myself and held back.  I am actually a much better runner than I have been giving myself credit for.  I needed to start running with a group of experienced runners in order to push myself and see what I was capable of.  This journey of discovery is only just beginning.

So although I still run solo once or twice a week, I am not getting as much time alone as I used to.  I am, however, getting time with a new group of friends with a common interest, and that is almost as good.  Probably better, in fact.  I just know that this will turn me into a better runner.

Good enough to aim for sub-2 hours in my next half-marathon?  Time will tell.

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