Monday, December 28, 2020

On Running Friendships

I've long appreciated that running introduces me to a lot of people I would not otherwise meet because our lives are too different. Running groups introduce you to people outside your neighborhood, outside your profession, outside your faith community, outside your family, outside the network of people you grew up with. Sometimes you meet people a lot like you. Take my friend Meg. We were both children of academics, in grad school ourselves, both looking for something non-academic to keep us lucid during difficult degree programs. 

But this is not as common as you might think. In fact, it's unusual. More often, I've gotten to know people I had relatively little in common with. Running has that power, to forge unlikely friendships. 

This witchy magic happens largely through the amount of time runners spend together, and through the sometimes raw physical effort of it. There is something about hearing another runner's goals and watching them work their ass off to reach those goals that brings closeness to relationships. It teaches us to cheer for each other, and to share the agony of each other's injuries and setbacks. We don't even have to speak the same language for me to cheer for you in this way. I could make a silent movie about marathon training and you'd cry with me at the finish.

I got to talking about this recently with a new-to-Cleveland runner. We've both had experiences where the magic of runner friendships didn't work out. The run does have this magic to forge friendships, and the run does change people in the long term, but the run doesn't change the person who shows up on a Tuesday morning. You're going to meet people who just aren't a match for your style. You're going to meet people who throw any number of red flags, and you're going to learn one way or another whether those flags are serious for a friendship or not. Some of them will be. Sometimes, you're going to be too much for some people, and as the saying goes, those are not your people. 

Sometimes, things just don't work out.

I wasn't sure for a long time why this felt like a big discovery to me--that running friendships don't always work. In all of life, relationships have highs and lows and don't always work. Why did it feel like I was pulling back the curtain on a running secret? 

I began endurance running in 2007, three states ago. It took all four states before I saw running friendships that didn't work. True story: I once went for a run with a total stranger through a largely abandoned warehouse district in St. Louis. And it was lovely. Magic! My Utah BRF is not very much like me! We used our differences to learn. We asked questions and respected each other's choices. Magic! I'd had about a decade of incredibly diverse running groups and friendships that had never required question. 

I'd just never seen the witchy magic run out. Until I did.  

The first time I saw it, it had nothing to do with me. A local run squad internally combusted while traveling for a race. I knew most of them but wasn't there and never got involved. Then, maybe a year later, one of the women involved in that explosion said some profoundly unkind things to me--too unkind, too unnecessary, and too relentless. She was the third person I'd ever unfriended on social media. Here in 2020, a handful of red flags I'd been seeing for a while became impossible to ignore or address, and I extracted myself from a group. 

Maybe I just got lucky for the first decade. Maybe I was in places where I had much less interaction with a large group (SRTT/MRTT here is huge!) and thus with as many people. I don't know. What I do know is this: running creates an opportunity for friendship. Strong, deep friendships. Friendships that share celebration, determination, experiences, hardship. Friendships that survive time, distance, and the pandemic. It is a witchy magic. I'd forgotten that magic had an edge, but of course it does. But isn't it incredible that it exists? 

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