YOU MIGHT HAVE seen me at the finish line a few years ago: a middle-aged woman, standing alone, acting like she enjoyed hanging out by herself. I might have offered a sweaty half-smile to anyone who looked my way, a plastered-on fake grin that tried to convey “I love running by myself’! I don’t mind that you all are talking with your friends about your race! I’m a free spirit. Eating this banana all alone? There’s nothing would rather do!”
Going to races by myself had become a well-worn habit, ever since my sister (my running partner and best friend) had moved 1000 kilometres away. As much as I wanted someone with whom I could run and attend races, I wasn’t able or willing to take the difficult steps sometimes necessary to secure a running partner. Now, though, I’ve learnt that finding and keeping a running partner can be risky business, even though taking risks can sometimes lead to rewarding outcomes.
For a number of years after my sister moved, I persisted in attending most races alone, trying to convince myself that finishing a marathon without any company before, during, or after somehow made me tougher and more accomplished. Completing daily runs by myself became a badge of honor; I was convinced running with only my podcasts and my dog was what I wanted.
I probably wasn’t fooling anyone, least of all myself. After races, when people stood in clumps rehashing their races, I felt acutely alone, like a middle schooler who had been banished from sitting with the cool kids. When my favorite running podcasters talked about their Best Running Friends I developed a serious bout of envy: I wanted a BRF, but didn’t know how or where to find one.
Every now and again, I got a taste of what those relationships might feel like: meeting up with old high school teammates to run a marathon together, traveling with another friend to several sprint triathlons. But these glimpses of running friendship only increased my longing for an enduring BRF relationship.
Social and work events became a potential opportunity to find a running partner. If I saw another mother in the school pick-up line wearing running shoes, I imagined scenarios in which we met up for early morning intervals before the kids went off to school. When new colleagues were hired, I’d look them over, hoping their athletic physique, mostly hidden in professional wear, reflected a dedication to fitness.
At races by myself, I’d concoct scenarios in which I initiated conversation with a woman running my same pace; and we’d finish the race together; and we’d exchange email addresses over our post-race banter. This scenario failed to take into account my introversion and the difficulty I have talking to strangers, nor that many people aren’t exactly gregarious when they are trying to complete a marathon.
Finally, I had enough with my loneliness and the envy that seemed to color every finish line I reached. My passive approach to finding a running mate was no longer working; I needed a new strategy. I took what was, for me, a big risk at the time, and joined a gym.
Now, most people might think joining a gym required no risk at all, but I am not most people. Even though I’d been a runner for over thirty years, joining a gym filled me with fear. I was sure everyone around me would be cute, petite, perky, and wearing fabulously flattering workout gear (just like on TV) and I didn’t want to face the shame of being tall and frumpy, a shy college professor without cute yoga pants or a sweet blond ponytail.
Several other perilous events followed my gym membership: Taking a group fitness class. Taking another. Actually talking to someone in the class,and then talking to the instructor. (Hey, I’m an introvert. These things take time.) Still, there were no immediate offers for running partners, even after it became clear that I was myself a runner.
But then, the instructor of my weight-lifting class sent me an email, asking if I’d like to go for a run. This itself took some risk on her part: she didn’t know me well, didn’t know how fast or slow I ran, didn’t know how badly I wanted a workout partner (or if I wanted one at all). Despite my own fears about this out-of-the-blue offer to run, I said yes, and then fretted for a week until our first running date occurred.
We’ve been happily running together for a year now, and have developed the BRF relationship I longed for. In that time, there were other negotiations that required that we each be vulnerable: Would it be okay to start our runs at 5:30 a.m.? How about 5 a.m.? Is this pace acceptable? If one of us struggles some mornings, can we walk for a moment or two? Can we use expletives once in awhile? If we’re up all night with a sick child, is it OK to cancel last minute? (Turns out, the answers to all these questions was yes, of course.)
On running forums and blog comments, I’ve observed other people looking for their own workout partners. My simple a dive to them would always be this: take some risks.
Find some new activities where runners gather. Simply asking someone to go running can be difficult, but that may just be the question that person is waiting to be asked.
And then I might say this: there’s something about taking the road with another person that can open you up to deeper levels of authenticity and respect; standing at a finish line with someone, sweaty and exhausted and nauseous (and thrilled) can shift a relationship into something far more profound. I know that now, and am grateful I took the risks necessary to secure a person who has not only become and terrific running partner, but also a very close friend.