The great poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.” A running buddy then, if I may be so bold as to give a runner’s spin to the adage, is the masterpiece of the miles.
Four days ago, I was talking to a new acquaintance about the business of running buddies.
“My sister ran a half marathon,” she said with the eager conviviality of non-runners who, in an effort to oblige the runner with whom they are speaking, spouts off the name of someone they know who does run. (It is a gesture of cordiality that somewhat precariously straddles the line between admiration and patronization.)
“Oh, that’s awesome!” I responded.
“Yeah, in Florida. She ran it with a friend.”
I was about to reply with a question regarding the name of the race (which I would have bet a gazillion dollars involved the word “Disney”) when she sheepishly added, “But they’re not friends anymore.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Yeah, so, they were supposed to run together or something,” she continued, “but then with like a mile left, her friend decided to sprint to the end. My sister was, like, so mad because her friend left her way behind. I guess you’re not supposed to do that.” She shrugged. “They haven’t talked since.”
“Ooo…” I grimaced. “Yeah. That’s… a bummer.”
As our conversation came to a rather abrupt and awkward end (the barista called my drink order as I was enunciating the final r in “bummer”), I contemplated the friendship’s demise.
The running buddy bond is unique. The miles present a rare sphere in which we are exposed and genuine and free of the affectations we unwittingly assume in regular society. No one is red carpet ready at 4:30 in the morning. No one is “hip” at mile twenty. No one looks cool gutting out the final stretch of a pace run. No one remains dignified when doubled over in the throes of mid-run gastrointestinal distress. Runner’s boogers do not discriminate. And running tights...? Well, suffice it to say spandex doesn’t lie.
No, we are who we are when we run. We can’t be posers. The miles don’t allow it. Our running buddies see us at our worst… and run with us anyway. They encourage us. They push us. They entertain us. They hold us accountable. They share inside jokes. They share GU.
And, apparently, every now and then, they abandon us in the middle of a Disney Princess Half Marathon, tutu-ed and alone, weeping and gnashing our teeth somewhere between EPCOT and Magic Kingdom.
While a running buddy relationship may seem indestructible—and, indeed, some are—there are certain situations that strain the bond. Many a friendship has been shattered in the final yards of a marathon or in the cramp-inducing delay when a running buddy who offered to join for the last ten miles of a long run shows up thirty minutes late. (When push comes to shove, you can run without a partner. You cannot, however, run without hamstrings.)
Of course, the hardiness of each relationship is unique. There is the casual, social running buddy. And then there is the down-and-dirty, “you’re the person I want by my side at mile eighteen when the fried rice you told me not to eat for dinner decides to make a cameo appearance” kind of running buddy. (Yeah, you know what I’m talking about.) But no matter the strength—or lack thereof—of a running relationship, there are practical steps you can take to help avoid a messy split. Consider these guidelines to a runner’s prenup, and you and your buddy can run happily ever after.
Use the 5-Minute Rule for groups of three or more. We’ve all got work to do, places to go, errands to run, and kids to taxi. The last thing we need is to get cut short a few miles because someone was late. Establish that the group will leave exactly 5 minutes after the official meet time. Period. A hard and fast rule removes personal feelings from the equation and keeps things fair for everyone.
As a rule of thumb, always stay with your running buddy during long training runs. Yep, even when that means stopping at every restroom facility between here and Timbuktu. Twice. Bathroom emergencies, muscle cramps, nausea, and fatigue happen to all of us at one point or another, and chances are it won’t be long before the situation is reversed. One stop-riddled long run won’t kill your training. So simply enjoy the breathers and get back on pace next week.
Know when to talk and when to keep your mouth shut. This is a skill that comes with intentionality, discernment, and time. Don’t feel pressure to be a constant cheerleader. In fact, being overly positive, energetic, or chatty when your running buddy is clearly struggling may be one of the worst thing you can do. Pay attention to your buddy’s body language. When in doubt, always err on the side of being quiet. And don’t be afraid to ask bluntly, “Do you want me to talk or do you want me to shut up?” This rule applies to both training runs and races. As does the next rule…
Don’t take grouchiness personally. Whether it manifests itself in mile upon mile of silence or an unprecedented fusillade of expletives, grouchiness happens. We all have bad runs. We all experience times when we feel as though the sport hates us. And our bodies hate us. And the miles hate us. And the world hates us. Sometimes we don’t handle such feelings… gracefully. So don’t feel self-conscious if your running buddy seems less than perky. It’s not you. It’s probably the fact that it’s 5:00am and pitch dark and seven degrees and you still have eighteen miles to go.
If you’re both racing the race, agree to leave each other in the dust. Never, ever, ever should you have to make a mid-race decision between a PR and your running buddy. It’s awesome that you trained together, but come race day, it’s every man for himself. A PR is rare. But two PRs on the same day is doubly rare. Before you even begin training (that’s right, training), establish that you will each run your own race on race day. If one falters, the other needs to keep running forward without so much as glancing back. (And vice versa.) Shake on it. You’re not being selfish. You’re racing.
If you’re both running the race for fun, always stay together. Again, this needs to be decided long before race day. Once you and your buddy establish that your goal is to run 26.2 miles dressed as bananas or fairies or something else equally as entertaining (and not to PR), then stay together, even if one of the fairies has to walk or one of the bananas has bathroom issues. Suddenly deciding that you want to race the thing—and leaving your fellow fruit to fend for herself—is the ultimate party foul.
If you’ve agreed to be someone’s pacer during a race, always stay with her/him. In other words, never leave your wingman. You’re not trying to PR. Your purpose is to serve as your buddy’s pacer. Generally, if you’re acting as a pacer, you’re running a pace that is comfortable for you. And if you’re running a pace that is comfortable for you, you’re going to feel good. Don’t let springy legs tempt you to take off. This is your buddy’s race, not yours.
Hug it out (or high-five it) post-run. That long run you hammered. The tempo run you gutted out. The race you PR’ed. And the race you blew up. All are worthy of a post-run hug. Your running buddy went through the trenches with you, and that is a rare friend indeed.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner. Her second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story, will be released in 2014.