My (Many) Running Partners

Long before I’d ever run a race, let alone a marathon (or six of them), I had a running partner. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact Eileen, a fellow graduate, had on my running life, even if it did start out slow and noncommittal.

A semi-new runner, I could eke out a few conversationally-paced miles, but Eileen promised she didn’t care about speeed. So for nearly two years, Eileen and I ran together several mornings a week.

We ran through heart-wrenching breakups and periods where we contemplated being alone and unloved forever. We talked often and openly about sex, and we divulged details of our complicated relationships with our siblings.

I confided in her about my father’s marital affair, something that I’d only recently been able to put into words. She told me about her sister’s inability to get pregnant. Nothing was off the table, and though Eileen and I formed a relationship off-road, we were never more at ease than when we ran together.

Eileen and I stayed in touch after grad school, though I moved, and she returned to her roots. When we visited one another, we always made time for a run. We even ran a few races together, “for fun.” It would be years before I gave a hoot about my time, PB, or age-group placement. I’m not sure Eileen ever cared about any of those things. She just liked running.

I missed having a near-daily running partner, someone to make me go faster unknowingly, someone to help pass the time so that five kilometres were suddenly ten—or ten were suddenly twelve.

I valued the physical gain. But more than that, I valued having someone to help me sort through tormented feelings about a relationship or gnawing self-doubts about my work. Our phone conversations often began with, “On my run today, I thought of something…” and then we would go on to offer a theory or advice or suggestion for whatever we knew was ailing the other.

I didn’t think anyone could ever replace Eileen as a running partner, but I wasn’t against finding someone to run with, specifically a woman who cared about both her body and mind as I did and who appreciated the conversation that came with not running alone.

I met Kara during a stint waiting tables. Weeks earlier I’d gotten news that I’d won a coveted New York City Marathon lottery spot. When I learned Kara was training for the same race and also wanted to finish in under four hours, we fell into an easy (albeit Type A) pattern—running together several days a week and keeping our runs recorded in a Google Docs spreadsheet. One day, under the cross-training column, when I was in Mexico with a man I’d recently started seeing, I wrote, “vigorous sex…that counts, right?” I knew Kara would have a good laugh at that, and I knew I could count on her to support my unconventional cross-training methods.

Such was our relationship. We offered support that enabled us to endure months of hard training and demanding self-discipline, and we also lended an ear or sharp words of wisdom when needed.

Kara’s point of view where all things romantic was concerned was far more cynical than Eileen’s, but I tried not to compare them—their conversation or their running behavior. I loved how candid Kara was, how relaxed she was running and talking about her messy divorce. I envied her insanely busy social calendar while trying to figure out how I, too, could train with dedication and go out almost every night.

Our relationship took a hit when the NYC marathon was cancelled. While neither of us could argue with the logic of the race’s cancellation, we couldn’t help being disappointed and feeling forlorn. Without a race to run together, it didn’t seem we had much left.

I hadn’t realised our relationship was so fragile, so very dependent on the running action itself, on the training schedule we’d set forth. I thought if we met for a drink, we’d easily talk about the orgasms we were or weren’t having or the latest online escapade we’d been through just as we had with labored breathing and sweaty pits. But the one time we managed to meet in regular clothes and no set mileage, it was kind of awkward.

Perhaps it was simply the aftermath of the race’s cancellation that led to our demise. Whatever it was, I tried not to take it personally. And when the opportunity to run a marathon two weeks after the one I was supposed to run arose, I took it and nailed my goal, finishing in three hours and 51 minutes flat. I knew I couldn’t have done it without Kara, and for that, transient as our relationship proved, I was grateful.

Letting go of Kara, as naturally as it happened, wasn’t easy. When I met Rose, a fellow  runner, I was psyched she wanted to make a running date. Like Kara, Rose and I got along fabulously as running partners. Our running friendship was convenient: we lived near one another and both had somewhat flexible schedules. And we were both extremely punctual. If we agreed to meet at 7:05 a.m., we were both at the spot at 7:05 a.m. sharp.

Rose was the more seasoned and accomplished runner, and I picked her brain with all manner of running and training questions. We found common ground discussing books, movies, TV shows, and the latest restaurant we wanted to try. We talked generally about relationships (Rose was married with a kid and far more private than my previous running pals), but we didn’t discuss details of our intimate lives. I don’t point this out as problematic, just that it was a notable difference.

In countless ways, we couldn’t have been more different, and yet in ways that women runners are alike, we were undeniably so. We cared about the shape and fitness of our bodies more than we’d probably ever let on to our nonrunner friends or even our significant others. We shared a mutual disgust of lazy people and saw little wrong with the way we often organized our lives around our running schedules.

I’m sure we still share these sentiments, though I can’t know for sure. After a while, Rose’s schedule became less flexible and far more rigid, and I became unable—or unwilling—to work around it. As a result, our relationship eventually petered out.

I knew enough by now not to feel too bad about it. Rose was with me through all of my training for the 2013 NYC Marathon, where I finished in three hours and 37 minutes! It was an amazing accomplishment, and I credited all of the hard runs with Rose, runs she may have considered easy days that were tempo ones for me.

By the time I’d more or less given up the idea of having another steady running partner a couple of years ago, I met Laura. Of the 20 or so women in our group speedwork session, it was Laura and I who connected, and it seemed only logical to accept her invitation to run together one evening. I had no idea at the time if it would be solely a running friendship or if it would develop into more. And I didn’t care.

I’d come to realise each of my running partners—past and present—was meaningful in her own way. I’m positive I’d be miles behind without them. And I’d be minutes above my personal best. Only my running pals truly understand the head-clearing, bloat-fighting, stress-relieving impact of a solid few miles, and the secret fear of one day not being able to lace up and go for a run due to injury or illness. They know what it feels like to have an emotional run where the tears just won’t stop but somehow running through them feels like the only thing to do. They know the power of turning a bad day around with a speedy few miles.

We are kindred spirits—my past, present, and future running partners. I don’t mourn for the running partners I lost because they are with me every time I hit the pavement.

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