I’ve been running for about 30 years – since the Reagan administration, if you want to be precise. Long miles, countless races – and most of it completely and utterly alone.
No pity party here. I’ve driven myself, raced myself and walked away, banana in hand; my father or brother sometimes the only personal observer to the fact that I have crossed the line.
Lonely? Maybe, but it was the only running life I’d ever known. My brother has joined me on occasion, but it always coincided with some kind of sibling-reunion-alcohol-bender the night before, confirming the fact that I had no business trying to keep up with a 6-foot Ironman competitor with an illegal level of blood alcohol content still floating in my system. I don’t know if it was the pace or the alcohol, but I always felt violently ill afterward.
I watched those cheery groups of women on the bike path. I heard their raucous laughter, saw their smiles and observed them from afar like a scientist observing a new animal species. “What are they saying? How fast is their pace?” I asked myself. And yes, I’ll admit it, “How skinny are their legs?”
Afterward, I always felt a bit like that spinster who eyes the happily married couple from afar, disdain and longing eating at me, but content to know that I was very happy in my particular arrangement. I was the lone ranger, the singular girl. I needed no running partners. I needed no one.
This was confirmed on a leisurely Sunday morning run when I attempted to jump a small, black snake on the Mopac Trail, only to stumble and roll sideways into the ditch, as if having a seizure in slow motion. Pulling myself out of the ditch and fighting off wild turkeys, I jumped back onto the trail and prayed that no one had seen my fall. I ran on, wiping dirt and grime as I went, pretending like it never happened.
When a group of women runners came toward me, they all stared. Looking down, I discovered that the weeds had cut into my knees, and small rivulets of blood were streaming down my calves, mixing with sweat and soaking into my socks, like I was a victim of an indiscrete mini-machete attack. Limping home, I decided I deserved to be in a single group of one.
But then something crazy happened. I met Sue Dobson. She took one look at my Solomon trail shoes and asked me how the shoes felt and what trails I ran. I stared at her, mute. Alarmed, I stuttered out a weak response about only using my shoes in Colorado and quickly changed the subject. Both of us were left a bit mystified, Sue most of all. Several weeks later though, stranded at a Holiday Inn Express for my child’s softball tournament, my husband made the comment to other parents that I was running in the morning, and Sue asked if she could join me.
There was a heart-stopping moment as I tried to think of excuses, but failed. I stood mute, then reluctantly agreed to meet her the next morning. I am not exaggerating when I say that it felt like I was the computer geek being asked out by the football captain, and silently wondered if maybe I should be worried about their true intentions.
Instead of rejoicing at my first opportunity for running company, I felt nothing but panic. All the possibilities of social and running failure hit me. I went through potential scenarios in my head of what we would talk about, what was her pace, and how this would work. Similar to a first date, we would be checking out each other’s physique and speed. After years of running alone, I knew nothing of partner etiquette. If I really had to go to the bathroom, would she be mortified when I ran into the trees to find cover? And how would she feel about gastric situations involving too much guacamole, chips and beer the night before? These were all serious issues with no answers.
We ran five miles that morning, and I was so nervous, so out of my element, that I talked the entire way to cover up any awkward pauses. There was a never-ending stream of babble flowing from my mouth like a faucet that just wouldn’t shut off. Sue later told me that she thought I had some kind of social disorder. She wasn’t far off the mark, but she didn’t give up on me either. Several weeks later, she invited me to run in Wilderness Park with her.
“Where?” I asked.
“People run out there?”
“Yes, a lot of us. Women runners.”
“Isn’t it . . . woody?”
“Yes, that’s why it’s called Wilderness Park.”
I was strictly a concrete, limestone bike path kind of girl. Straight miles, known paths, all of it very safe and secure. This was a timber, with dirt paths, large bugs and poison ivy. All kinds of bad things could happen to me, not excluding wet, muddy shoes, which was something I completely abhorred.
I clutched my cellphone as we headed out that first day, pulled up my socks, staying to the middle of the path, my eyes roving side-to-side looking for ticks and large animals. But within weeks, Sue had me climbing fallen trees, mucking through bogs, and keeping a bag with OFF, a spare running shirt, Recoverite and Tecnu.
I posted pictures of us running framed with spectacular sunrises, surrounded by lush greenery. Facebook friends wondered if I had taken a running vacation to a foreign locale and not told anyone. I completed my first trail marathon, falling only once, while Sue pulled me back on course when I stared too much at scenery, like a kid at Disneyland.
Nowadays, I can’t fathom the idea of a 10-mile run without company, and I can’t grasp how I withstood it for so long. The sheer boredom I endured is mind-boggling. Introduced to Sue’s other runner friends, I realized that there was a whole bevy of female sprites in Wilderness Park, putting in miles, enjoying the solitude and loving it. It’s possible that I am an old dog that has learned a new trick, or pair of old shoes that have been revitalized for another activity. Single Saturdays have turned into Wilderness Wednesdays, which include shared beers after a long run, and laughing at your friend as she wipes off caked mud and removes a few baby ticks from her socks.