On Saturday, I joyfully embarked on a two-hour run at 5 AM with Carrie, whom I had never run with before, and when we were finished we met up with a crowd of yet more totally new people who had gathered for the Motherlode of Miles, a group run being replicated all over the country with little communities of mother runners like us. A Saturday morning that ten years ago would have filled me with heart-stopping performance anxiety became instead the highlight of my week. I wasn’t paying attention, but I don’t think a single one of us looked at a watch as we all ran together; I know I didn’t. I was as relaxed as I have ever been with a group of people, and it was three hours later over a second or third cup of coffee that we did finally look at our watches and realize that how the time had flown.
The paradox of my running life is my great love of solitude in co-presence with my devotion to the running friends I have collected over the years. No relationship in my life has ever managed to remain the same after running became a part of the picture, because there is nothing like a run together to establish trust between people, and to show generosity. Trust because we all feel a little vulnerable when we take off with a new running companion, generosity because we genuinely want to share this experience with them, and that’s why we’re here.
The first person who ever ran with me was my best friend Gabby, who had been at my side since middle school. It was the summer after our freshman year of college, and we both had jobs – mine started early and hers started closer to midday, which suited her preferred waking schedule. But because I wanted to become a runner and I was afraid I couldn’t do it alone, she woke her ass up at 5:00 in the morning and went to the Belmont Reservoir with me so that we could run together before I had to go to work. Once there, we would each go at our own pace, but her presence ensured that I never blew off a run. We have only run together a handful of times since that summer, but you never forget a friend who set a 5 AM alarm for you, despite how much she hated (and I cannot overstate how much) waking up earlier than strictly necessary. There were no selfies and no pictures, but if we were to recreate one of these mornings in 2018, there would be bleary eyes and gritted teeth. That’s real generosity right there.
College was a tricky time for running friends; I operated under the default assumption that I was the actual slowest runner in the world, which made me extremely reluctant to run with anyone else. One extremely patient person, Audrey, eventually persuaded me to just chill the fuck out and let her join me one day. I was apologizing for my pace before we even started (because Audrey, you see, was a ‘real runner’ to me), making it clear that I would not, like not, be offended if she should decide to just drop me and run ahead. She did not, because she actually just wanted to run with me. Eventually, we had a standing Wednesday morning run date, and eventually, I stopped being so apologetic for myself. As it turned out, Audrey could push it and force me out of my comfort zone on a 5-mile run, but she needed my slow, controlled pacing to get us through the long, slow runs that our marathon training required. Running in our college town will always remind me of her, both my reluctance to let her in and the closeness that developed over many hours on country roads together.
When we were little kids, my brother Henry showed his generosity towards me (and I don’t know that I reciprocated it) by buying me a Beanie Baby that he knew I wanted, with his own money. Now, he runs with me if we happen to be in the same zip code, despite his indisputably superior fitness over short distances. He has run PRs with me at our Thanksgiving road race, both of us gasping for air at the finish line, and he has run at whatever slow and chatty pace I set, never giving the slightest indication that he’d prefer to be going faster. When we first ran together, along the Tiber River in Rome at Christmas in 2006, I stopped seeing him as the incomparably-more-athletic little brother. He was my friend, and he wanted to run with me, full stop. We overlapped as adults living in the Boston area for one year, and that year he ran with me every single Tuesday, no matter the weather. That was a tough period in my running life, filled with doubt and pessimism, but something about Henry showing up every week to run with me and matching whatever pace I could muster that week reassured me. He thought I was a runner; why shouldn’t I? He lives across the country now, and our last run together was close to a year ago, at Thanksgiving. Even if it only happens sporadically now, almost on a whim, he will never not be my running buddy, and no matter how out of shape I think I am at any given time, I will always trust that he wants to run with me anyway.
Since having my daughter, the community of mother runners I am now part of has made complete the act of not just letting my guard down, but dispensing with it entirely. I go to Philly, I run with Shara. Kim and Ilyce drive to Somerville, we run. I go to the Twin Cities, I run with all the other women from around the country who will be racing with me the next day. For the first time since college, I have a best running friend, Lisa, who meets me every week somewhere in the vicinity of 5 AM and, yes, slows herself down to whatever pace is comfortable for me. Whatever initial hang-up I might have had about this has long since become history, because there is no one more breezy about running whatever pace I want than Lisa. I know that she would probably rack up a couple of additional miles per week if not for this time with me, and I trust that she could not care less, because, as I now find it much easier to believe, she wants to run with me. That’s who she is, and it’s who we are.