The best thing ever to happen to me as a runner was to run with my much-faster wife.
I met Jen in college. We both ran track at a small school in central Pennsylvania, and we used to joke about which race was harder: the hip-busting hop-and-push of her 100-meter hurdles or the sustained sprint of my half-mile.
I wasn’t exactly a natural runner. I quit the college basketball team when my coach didn’t give me the starting point-guard spot as an underclassman. Point guards are notoriously prideful players—we want to be the stars of the show. The bench wasn’t for me.
Running was a nice escape from the confines of my college experience. The school was in the middle of nowhere, and I often felt out of place as a New Jersey kid in central Pennsylvania. On training runs, I’d run with my teammates past tractors and along empty back roads bordered by farms, leaving my anxieties behind on campus. Over time, I got used to running with middle-distance guys who were a little faster than me, racers who’d been toughing it out through winter hill repeats for years. It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t the fastest on those runs; I was just happy to be part of the pack.
At first, I felt the same way running with Jen: I was satisfied just trying to keep up. She was quick, always sure on her feet. I was still trying to master the patience and long strides that distance running requires.
Plagued by injuries, I stopped running for the team after just one season and turned my focus to writing. Jen and I would go for short runs after her training, but I hesitated to tag along on her longer days. Even though she was a hurdler, distance running also came naturally to her. For me, long runs were labor. What I loved most about the 800 was that it was over fast: one lap in, I was already halfway done.
She was quick, always sure on her feet. I was still trying to master the patience and long strides that distance running requires.
For a few years after college, I avoided running with my wife. I couldn’t keep up and felt pangs of guilt when she slowed down to stay with me. She was being a good sport—and a good partner—but I had too much pride to accept that.
In those years, we’d go to the trail together and head off on separate routes. I’d go for a short run, and then kill time with some core exercises until Jen finished her loop. But one day, five years ago, while I waited alone at the end of the trail, I started to miss trying to keep up with her. Running with Jen was like having a coach who was my best friend—someone who could push me just by existing and motivated me simply by doing her own thing.
We finally started running together again after our twin daughters were born in 2013. On those runs, we would move down the trail at what seemed like an even pace, but in reality, Jen was gliding and I was pushing. I had gained some pounds over my racing weight and could keep pace with Jen during those early months after she had our daughters, but I could tell she was quickly regaining her old speed. She was a racer, ready to blaze down the trail again. I was perpetually a runner in training.
Our girls are four years old now, and I still can’t keep up with my wife on long runs. But I’m getting better at accepting that. We start the typical run together, matching stride for stride. Usually, as we near the first mile, I pause my music to listen to my heavy breathing compete with the sound of our footfalls. Jen drifts ahead, and I lengthen my strides a bit while looking down at the uneven trail. Jen looks back over her shoulder, and I can sense her slowing down, getting ready to wait for me. As always, it’s a graceful gesture. But I’ve learned to wave her forward.
Jen soon disappears into the distance. I pass old battery boxes, shuttered cabins, and cattail marshes that border wide ponds. I look at my watch to check my pace and work to better control my breaths. It’s not about catching her, though. Jen will turn around at the 5K mark and run back toward me. This exercise has made me a better runner: I’m pushing toward a goal, but I feel competitive only with myself.
When Jen does come back into sight, I turn around on the trail, and she eventually reaches me again—as if we’re doing a relay. These days, I approach running with Jen with the realization that we’re a team: even though I can’t keep up for the whole time, we always finish our runs together.