Road Rules

The unwritten running code of conduct for running girlfriends from girls who rock.

“I just don’t think I can do this,” I said. They were words I’d been turning over in my head for the past week, and finally – maybe because the gentle grade was getting to me and I figured I could always use it as an excuse – they came tumbling out of my mouth.


“I don’t think I can get married.”


I was running with my new-to-me running partner. We’d met a few months earlier when we both moved to a new city. Six blocks into our inaugural run, I knew our relationship (unlike my engagement) was going to work. Still, Laura and I were new enough friends that I hadn’t planned to spill my guts to her that morning. As we ran, we worked out how I was going to break the news to my fiancé. By the time we returned back to our starting point, I had a plan.


A good running girlfriend is more than just the person who pries you out of bed at zero-dark-thirty because showing up is easier than trying to text “not coming” without your contacts in. Occupying that small sliver of Venn diagram where cheerleader, personal trainer, therapist and friend all intersect, finding a good running partner is an incredible thing. You had no idea something so wonderful was possible, and yet, there it is.


But there are rules. Mostly unspoken, of course. No one shows up to a group run and announces that all snot rockets must be blown to the left, wind direction be damned. Instead, the rules are just understood – especially by long-term training partners. And adherence to them is crucial. It’s what makes a running relationship work.


I have two unbreakable tenets that I expect my partners to uphold. First: what’s said on the run stays on the run. My filter goes as soon as my heart rate reaches above 160 beats-per-minute. This is why I told Laura about the impending demise of my relationship before I told anyone else. I knew my words would drift off on the winds, over and away.


Second: all unplanned gastrointestinal sounds or, um, urges are not to be judged. Sure, I’ll do my best not to eat chilli the night before interval work, but we’re runners, and G.I. issues happen.


Elites have rules too – a lot of them, in fact. We asked both longtime elites and up-and-comers about their training partner likes and dislikes. Here’s what they said.


Know How To Listen

“I am an open book when sharing the miles with my teammates, so I am sure they have been privy to information prematurely,” says Deena Kastor. “Typically I would be blabbing about something and come to a decision during the run (runs are always good at figuring out life’s dilemmas.)” She adds that any topic is fair game on the run, and that when she runs with her girlfriends: “the conversation gets REAL.”


It’s Not Personal

As much as you can love the company of another person, ultimately if your paces don’t match up, it’s not going to be a great running relationship. “If you are trying to run with someone whose average pace is slower or faster than yours it can make it difficult to really get out of the run what you need and want. The same is true for them,” says Laura Thweatt. She cites her Colorado University teammate, Emma Coburn, as her best training partner of all time.It didn’t matter if it was a hard 22km run or an easy 10K, her company simply made the miles disappear. Our running pace was very similar, which I think is one of the biggest contributing factors to finding a great running companion.”


If your running partner is constantly waiting on you or you’re constantly waiting on them, know that it’s okay to go your separate ways. And rest assured, the decision to split had nothing to do with how you felt about each other as people.


Run With Me, Not Ahead Of Me

“I’ve run with a girl that always had to be a half step ahead and could only run on my right like she was passing,” says Heather Wurtele, a six-time Ironman champion. “If it was a trail that narrowed to single track she HAD to go first. These kind of ego games are super annoying,” she adds.


Laura Thweatt couldn’t agree more: “It is extremely difficult for me to run with someone who two steps, meaning they are just running ahead of you. More times than not they are unaware that they are actually doing this, but either way I have a hard time enjoying a run with someone who has to look back at me while talking.”


Practice Compassion On Bad Days

When your fast friend is struggling, it can be tempting to capitalise on the rare chance to drop her. Don’t do it.


“Race day is a different story, but in training the goal is to help each other and if someone is having an off day, pull them along rather than taking advantage of it to build yourself up,” explains professional runner Sara Hall.


Be On Time

This was mentioned by more elites than any other pet peeve. “Runners are notorious for it, it seems,” says Babcock. “If practice starts at 9, that means 9, not 9:15!” Set your watch to be five minutes fast, lay your clothes out the night before, pre-brew your coffee, do what you need to do, but do not be late!


Keep The Negativity To A Minimum

Sure, being pleasant above lactate threshold is difficult – and no one expects you to be cheery every moment of every workout. But as Heather Wurtele says “being cranky from hard training is OK, but a general negative attitude is not.”


Deena Kastor agrees: “Negativity can be a drag if it can’t be worked out, so if there is a problem to listen to or help out with, I hope it’s resolved and we are on to more positive conversation by the time the run is over.”


Declare Your Workout Intentions Ahead Of Time

There’s nothing quite like thinking you’re heading out for an easy run and realising midway through that your partner has picked things up to tempo pace. I call these “ninja” workouts and they are annoying at best and dangerous at worst.


Care About Your Partner’s Goals

This is what elevates a running partner from good to hero status. “Without being asked, I had a training partner drive half an hour to join me for the last half of a hard two and a half hour run to help me push the pace,” remembers Heather Wurtele. “She knew where I’d do my loop and just showed up. It was awesome and totally improved that training session!”


All Bets Are Off At Races, But You Can Still Do The Right Thing

“Hands down my best running partner is my good friend Alicia Shay,” says Sara Hall. “We were the same year at Stanford University and already friends from high school competitions. There were times when Alicia was in better shape than me, like one race I remember being the pre-nationals our junior year (in 2003). My breathing was becoming more laboured, but we were way out in front of everyone else and she knew if she pulled away, there was a chance I’d just crumble. So instead she just stuck with me until the end of the race and we crossed the line together.”


It’s been seven years since I made the decision to call off the wedding. Laura and I have both moved to different parts of the country, but we’ve remained close friends. Every time we get together, we run.


Our most recent run together happened on a cool, October morning. We left my childhood home and headed into the neighborhood I’d grown up running through. Laura, living in a mountainous part of the country, was uninhibited on the hills, while I puffed along with the fortitude of an asthmatic penguin. Before the steepest rise of the day, she said: “Are you ready to do this?”


She wasn’t asking about the hill, she was asking about my wedding, which would start in less than five hours. As we ran up the hill, I answered breathlessly, “Yes, I’m ready to do this.”




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