An Elegy for My Long-Lost Running Friends
Training alone can make you stronger, but there’s no substitute for the bond between you and your fellow runners
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Early last year, Amanda Mull wrote a piece for the Atlantic titled, “The Pandemic Has Erased Entire Categories of Friendship.” The article makes the case that the extended dearth of in-person interactions has caused many of us to lose touch with those on the periphery of our lives: gym buddies, bartenders who know our name, familiar faces from the office cafeteria. These are so-called “weak tie” friendships, whose ostensible shallowness, Mull argues, belies their importance to our psychological well-being. “I realized how much I missed it,” she writes of her communal habit of watching college football in a packed bar, “especially how much I missed all those people I only sort of know.”
For me, a version of this phenomenon played out when my local running team suspended group workouts in early 2020. With no more Tuesday track intervals or Thursday night tempos in Central Park, I was also suddenly wistful for the company of people I only sort of knew—individuals whose lives were often largely opaque to me, except for the knowledge that we all derived a perverse sense of fulfillment from doing quarter mile repeats, or progression runs in the rain.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but the pandemic-induced hiatus from these group sessions would ultimately put an end to that particular chapter of my running life. By the time Covid restrictions were lifted, I’d become used to the convenience of training on my own. I had a kid. I had work obligations. Suddenly, the prospect of a semi-weekly, 50-minute subway ride just so I could, as my wife put it, “run around” with other grown men felt like an extravagance I could no longer justify. Especially if I could do all the workouts on my own. By cutting out team practices I would effectively be adding several hours to my week. But I knew that I would be losing something too.
It’s a cliché that men have a difficult time expanding their social circles once they get to a certain age. For me, that cliché is a little too accurate; all of my close friends are people I have known for decades, people I met during those perfect languid years when there was endless time to hang out. One of the more depressing aspects of my current social milieu is that everyone seems to think it’s necessary to schedule something banal like meeting for coffee far in advance. My running friendships offered a reprieve from the tyranny of the calendar. It’s counterintuitive, perhaps, since not many things are as hyper-structured as marathon training. But team workouts were just part of my routine, as opposed to something I needed to plan. I didn’t need to call my running friends. I knew they would be there.
Training partners have a peculiar kind of bond. It’s symbiotic, vaguely transactional. The basic idea is to help each other reach a certain level of discomfort. You’re working together, but you’re also very much alone. For years, I did workouts with the same group of people without meeting any of them socially. The nature of our relationship was that we’d chase each other around a paved loop or 400-meter track at different paces and then vanish into our separate lives until the following week.
Of course, the fact that you’re assisting each other in the pursuit of a certain kind of pain isn’t the only source of camaraderie. There are easy miles too. Inevitably, your running friends are also the people you spend a lot of time shooting the shit with. There are few activities that are as conducive to easy conversation. A few years ago, I wrote about therapists who incorporate running into their practice—the basic idea is that talking to someone shoulder to shoulder, as opposed to face to face, can make you less inhibited, and more likely to bare your soul to a relative stranger. Maybe it’s because you’re already in a compromised state of sweaty vulnerability, but running seems to foster a certain level of candidness. Run with someone and you might find out that their cat died that morning, or that they have had diarrhea ever since they got back from a trip to Mexico City. At the office, this might be oversharing, but it’s all fair game on a run.
The people you train with are often also the people you race against. Assuming that all of you are emotionally invested in such an objectively meaningless pursuit, you get to experience each other’s elation or despair on a visceral level. This stuff tends to stay with you. Occasionally I’ll be blindsided by a social media post from an old training buddy whom I haven’t seen in years. He is reveling in past glory, recalling that one race where everything came together—the kind of performance you expect to hallucinate about when you’re on your deathbed and the morphine starts to kick in. I remember because I was there. Somewhere on my phone, there’s a photo of the two of us afterwards with sweat-matted faces and expressions of pure, stupid joy.
It’s that shared exuberance that I miss the most. The feeling of working together towards the same goal and seeing all those torturous mile repeats pay off. Even after doing this for many years, the process of building fitness still feels like magic. The fact that, if you do a certain number of workouts over a fairly compressed period of time, you can run 26 miles at a pace that seemed unthinkable a few months ago.
I have gotten better at doing those workouts on my own, better at pushing myself with no one to draft off of. But this newfound self-reliance is a mixed blessing. It’s one thing to be physically capable of running a certain pace for a certain number of miles. It’s another thing altogether to believe that the voluntary embrace of discomfort is worth it. That’s the other, more intangible, benefit of running with a team: the mutual reassurance that all of this is a good use of our limited time.