Last Wednesday was Global Running Day, a day for runners like me to knock out a couple of miles and for everyone else to say, uh, no thanks. And that’s okay. Maybe you don’t get running. I don’t get bowling. Or karaoke. So, let’s just agree to make fun of each other’s pastimes, and then get a beer. Because what are pastimes if not an excuse for a beer?
I wasn’t always a runner. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Paraguay when I gave it a go and found it suited me, an introvert with little competitive spirit. Actually, none. As a high school field hockey and softball player, I appreciated post-game pizza as much as a win…okay, fine, MORE.
I like the simplicity of running. With some self-motivation and sneakers, you’re set. In Paraguay, I ran laps around a tree-lined soccer field for months until one day, I set out to run the length of a 10K. There were no spectators, no time clocks or official start or finish lines, but I completed those 6.1 miles and decided I was a “runner.” A couple of years later, in New York, I started participating in official 10K races, eventually upping that to half-marathons and marathons, too. By 2010, I had two NYC marathons under my belt.
It was at that point that I started a new job in Connecticut. Shon and I relocated from Brooklyn to northern Manhattan to shorten my commute, but the move had little effect. My drive was still long and exhausting and left me with limited free time. Our new neighborhood was more urban and cramped than what I was used to in Brooklyn. I found my motivation to run plummet. In an effort to rekindle the flame, I decided to join a running group.
It was a terrible idea.
The group I chose met on weekends in Central Park at 7 a.m. I should have known better. A sane hour in summer, 7 a.m. is an insane one in January, the month I decided to give the group thing a go. Middle-of-the-pack runners like me do not run on Saturdays, before sunrise, in the dead of winter. Instead, we go to the gym. We do yoga. We plan to run after brunch—and then maybe go to Sephora instead.
Nevertheless, I showed up on a dark and freezing Saturday to run with, let’s call the group “Sinewy Striders,” only to find a half-dozen men, all 30-plus, all long, lean, and limber. Basically a herd of gazelles. The one exception was another newbie, a woman dressed, inexplicably, in a black, head-to-toe spandex suit, similar to those of Olympic speed skaters.
Standing in an old college sweatshirt, leggings, a wool hat, and mittens, I was acutely aware these were NOT my people. They were front-of-the-packers, runners who could actually win their age-group division in a race. People who knew how to use the term “negative split” in a sentence about running.
Everyone was nice. It was terrible. We set out as a group at what was apparently warm-up speed for everyone else but that was faster than I had ever run for more than 10 seconds. When it became obvious there was some dead weight (me), pairs of runners began to apologetically pull away at twice the clip until it was just me, the speed skater, and the run leader, Mark–who wanted to talk.
TALK. Talk as bitter-cold air set fire to my lungs. Talk as a snotty nose forced me to breathe through my mouth, which numbed my tongue. Talk even though I could barely breathe.
Mark: “Melissa, what do you do?”
Me: “I…… am…… an….. editor…..”
Mark: “Where do you work?”
Me: “This…. is…. the…. fastest….. I’ve…. ever…. run….”
Mark: “I’m sorry. Do you want to slow down?”
We slowed, barely. Mark and the speed skater continued to chat. God knows what about. I went deaf trying to keep up and not hyperventilate.
Me: “I…. need….. to…. stop…. please…. go….. ahead.”
Mark: “No. We don’t leave anyone behind.”
Me: “Okay…. I’ll…. keep…. going.”
We continued for about a quarter-mile to Harlem Hill, a notoriously long uphill stretch of the Central Park loop. Here, my wheezing forced me to stop.
Me: “It’s fine, really. Please go ahead. I’ll run on my own.”
Mark: “No, it’s okay. We’ll walk with you.”
There was awkward silence as we slo-moed up the hill, and I started to itch with the awareness that I was trashing two strangers’ Saturday run. Far from ready to pick up the pace, but wishing the nightmare to end, I said I was okay to get going.
Speed skater: “See? That’s why I love training with a group. It motivates you to keep running.”
Me, 10 seconds later: “I have to walk.”
With this, speed skater’s love for training with our group proved finite, and she trotted off, leaving me alone with Mark.
To Mark’s credit (and my chagrin), he refused to leave me when members of our group, having completed their first six-mile lap of Central Park, passed us on their second. He refused to leave me when my running pace slowed to a walk and my walking pace slowed to a stroll. He refused to leave me even though I repeatedly begged him off.
And so, I left him. As we approached the south end of the park and my subway stop, I blurted, “I’m getting the A train here!” And ran away.
New York is a city of eight million plus. Of course there must be thousands of middle-of-the-pack runners like me.
I had this in mind a few weeks later, when I started looking for another group. This time, instead of arbitrarily showing up to a run, I emailed the new group I was considering first. I shared my average pace and asked if there was a run that would make sense for me.
I received an email back that said yes, the group’s Tuesday evening runs would suit my pace–which, it turned out, was about the same as the group’s recovery pace for “injured runners.” Even though I wasn’t injured, I was welcome to join.
Last Wednesday was Global Running Day. I went for run. By myself.