The Lovely Loneliness

In praise of the solitary run.

“Come Out and Play!” reads the headline. “Run Together!” shouts the cover of this very magazine. Another praises “The Rise of Running Tribes” and depicts a group of beautiful young people smiling, posing and generally being goofy, one lady perched on the back of a shirtless man. The articles describe high-spirited fun, group F-bomb chants, music and dancing during workouts, games designed to make sure you don’t run alone and mandatory hugs. Lots of hugs.

Excuse me while I cringe and recoil. Before anyone gets offended, let me make clear: it’s not you, it’s me. I am, admittedly, not the target age for the new wave of running groups, but I can’t think of any time in my life when I would have felt completely comfortable in one of them. I started life a geek: small, nervous in groups, the kind who hovers around the edges, watching, poised for flight. I was, and am, more likely to choose a book over a ball, a quiet walk through the woods over a crowded, noisy party.

There was a time, not long ago, when these qualities made me well-suited to be a distance runner. Overlooked in all the excitement these days about “seriously social workouts”, ignored in the stories that tout “the long-distance runner, lonely no more”, is the fact that for some, loneliness was, and is, one of the sport’s attractions.

Running used to be a haven for those who often prefer to be alone. We could head out the door and retreat to our own world, unburdened by the pressures and obligations of social relations, free from the awkwardness and self-consciousness of company. From the beginning, as a teenager facing the usual rush of gangly emotions and nascent adult conflicts, I ran to get away.
Henry David Thoreau was a walker, not a runner, but he had the same mindset. “To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating,” he wrote in Walden. “I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.”

Solitude was a solace for Smith, the hero of Alan Sillitoe’s 1959 short story that gave us the now-reviled phrase, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. A juvenile delinquent serving his time in a correctional facility, Smith gets to run each morning to train for an interschool race.

“It’s a treat, being a long-distance runner, out in the world by yourself with not a soul to make you bad-tempered or tell you what to do,” Smith says. “Sometimes I feel I’ve never been so free as during that couple of hours trotting up the path.”

During that era, and up until recently, being alone as a runner was necessary – not a lot of others wanted to spend the time on the roads and trails that we did. I related to Edward Abbey when I read, in Desert Solitaire, “Most of my wandering in the desert I’ve done alone. Not so much from choice as from necessity – I generally prefer to go into places where no one else wants to go.”

But Abbey wasn’t complaining. In the next line he praised that solitude: “I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.”

The same is true for me: I find the presence of others often mars the experience, whether I’m contemplating natural beauty or exploring the myriad trails of ideas within my head. The two often come together, with a patch of nature providing the solitude and the loneliness creating the mindset with which to notice and enjoy it.

This chance to pay attention is also why, on solitary runs, I don’t listen to music or podcasts. The rhythm of the run is music enough. Running is a time when I can pause the barrage of inputs, to hear the quiet sounds our society’s cacophony often drowns out – or to hear from myself for a change.

But the loneliness of the distance runner is lovely for more reasons than lack of distractions. Solitary runners nurture their independence daily. We need not gather a team or an opponent to pursue our passion. No ground rules have to be argued, no leaders appointed. Alone we decide which route to take and how far to wander out. Alone we have to make our way back.

I’m not antisocial. I search out running partners. The best, admittedly, share my mind-set and know how, and when, to be alone together. When I started running with my teenaged son, he told me that I talked too much. We’ve now done many silent kilometres together.

Over the course of the San Francisco Half Marathon last year, for example, both running strong but not all-out, we spoke at most 10 words each. That was a good run.

I’m not against running groups, either. I’ve joined a club in every city I’ve lived in as an adult. I love runs and workouts with the high school kids I coach.

But the love of loneliness is why, after a few days when all my runs are with the team, I feel jumpy and paranoid, like I haven’t run at all for some time, and it takes a solitary second run or a long weekend exploration to restore my equilibrium. And it’s why, by the end of a week at an event or conference when I’m surrounded by other runners, I find excuses to miss the morning group run and head out to do a quiet loop by myself. For me, running company is best taken in small doses.

Even when running with a group, the independent distance runner tends to prefer to make his or her own decisions on details like pace, distance and, especially, level of interaction and enthusiasm. We don’t react well to mandatory cheerleading or commands like “Louder!” We don’t hug, particularly not on demand. If we seem standoffish, it is because we are. We can fake gregariousness, but running is a time to be honest. If we can’t be ourselves on the run, when can we?

I applaud the running tribes who are inspiring new people to enjoy our sport. And I love that celebrating the difficulty of hard work is integral to the appeal of many of them. I’ve reluctantly enjoyed the few times I’ve joined such groups, and admit that, if I relax my default defences, the cheers and music and hearty camaraderie can produce a rush.

But if you, like me, find yourself longing for the quiet of the empty road or trail, accompanied by nothing but the sound of your breath and the wind in the trees, know that you are not alone. Our tribe dates back to before the first running boom. It is a tribe of solitary silhouettes moving quietly through still early mornings on empty roads. We’re not outcasts. We’ve chosen this loneliness, and it defines and enriches us.

“I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like,” said Sillitoe’s Smith. “As far as I was concerned, this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world.”


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