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NYT: Keeping Up With the Pack (Read 415 times)


A Dance with Monkeys

    September 23, 2007 Keeping Up With the Pack By GINA KOLATA I USED to run alone. Who would want my schedule and who would run my pace, I thought. Anyway, I had my iPod for company. But a few months ago, on a bicycling trip in Italy, a member of our group who is also a runner urged me to find some running friends. You will run farther and faster, he said, and the miles will fly by. Join a club, find a local group. Surely there must be some organization in your New Jersey town or nearby, he said. Of course, there was. And of course, the cyclist was right about the group. What happened was that I discovered the world of runners’ networks. It was a world I already half knew about, and it was a world right under my feet. All it took to join was opening my eyes. Those who run in packs are part of a select society, or maybe a self-selected society. Anyone can join, but you have to run and you have to go to the designated meeting place at the designated time. You might join a club that sponsors runs each week or you might go to a place like a parking lot behind a school where runners gather on weekend mornings. It’s not hard to find these meeting places; local running groups and running stores know where to go. And when you show up, ready to run, the society opens up to you. For the most part, these groups are not made up of people who are jogging for their health or because they want to lose weight. They are made up mostly of people who have been running long enough to be able to continue for miles and miles. And they love it. They are running for the sheer joy of it and for company to push them to run longer and faster and to share the inevitable pain that comes with the effort to improve. But if you crack open the door to the running community and wander in, you may get some surprises. You may end up with two separate but equal groups of friends — those who run and those who don’t. You will probably have conversations during runs that you could never imagine having if you were sitting face to face with a neighbor or a work colleague. And you may become unexpectedly close to people you would never have met or gotten to know in your other life. Along the way, you will discover quiet roads and hidden trails to run on. You may find some nice surprises — like a golf course along a canal towpath that has a large orange cooler filled with icy water and next to it, a stack of paper cups. It is put out for golfers, but runners help themselves. You may hear comments from passing motorists — one guy called out to me and my running friend Claire Brown, 34, “Bet you can’t catch me.” Out of his earshot, I muttered, “I’ll bet we could if he got out of his car.” And you may find that the world of serious runners is surprisingly small. Everyone in your area seems to know each other. I had already met some people from running in a few local five-kilometer races, including my nemesis, a woman who edged into my five-year age group last fall and has beaten me ever since. But the running community is more than the casual acquaintances you might strike up at races, as I discovered when I joined the Raritan Valley Road Runners and e-mailed its president, Gene Gugliotta, asking if he knew someone who could be a partner for me on long runs. I got an e-mail in reply. “Gina, meet Jen,” he wrote. “Jen, meet Gina.” Jen was Jennifer Davis, 37, a physical chemist and avid runner. When she was in graduate school, her adviser asked what she did in her spare time. “I run,” she said. But what else do you do? he asked. “You don’t understand,” she said. “I run.” And run she did. One long run would lead to the next, which would be a little longer as she pushed herself to keep going. Now she runs 10 to 12 miles at 6:45 each morning and often runs 30 or 40 miles on a weekend day. On our first run, Jen and I arranged to meet at Princeton University at 7:30 a.m. on a hot and humid Saturday. I saw Jen as I walked from my car to our meeting place — it was obvious that she was the woman who was going to run with me. Not only was she wearing shorts and a singlet, but she and I were also the only people around. We headed off, across campus, down a hill and to the Delaware & Raritan Canal. Jen turned out to be an entertaining companion and a tireless runner who set a great pace. While we ran, we talked and talked — you can say a lot in 90 minutes or more, and talking made the miles go by. We spoke about books and about our families and, of course, about running. We also spoke about cycling — a passion for me and something new for Jen. She had just bought a bike because she wanted to start to train for triathlons and had been cycling with her neighbor. She told me about the longest ride she had done with this neighbor, 70 miles, and how tired she had felt afterward. But she never told me the neighbor’s name. Then, I decided to show up at a running store in Princeton on a Thursday night when runners gather. I ended up running with Tara Martin, 29, who turned out to be Jen’s neighbor and the cycling buddy who had ridden those 70 miles with her, and with Amy Speckart, 36,, who also knew Jen. The next time I went to the store, the Running Company, I met Claire, who, of course, is friends with Jen and Tara and Amy and all the others in the informal group. The men in that Thursday night group are so fast that they can seem daunting. Few of the women can keep up. But the fast pace is part of the appeal, the men say. They are serious runners who drive each other to go farther and faster than they ever would on their own. “There’s a lot of bluffing,” says Jon Luff, 39, an aerospace mechanical engineer. “It’s kind of like a card game.” He loves the group so much that he continues to run with it even though he moved to New York in 2005, a 90-minute drive away. Jesse Smith, 34, who owns a home-building company, still remembers the first time he ran with the Thursday night group. It was the winter of 2002, and he had been running up to, although not more than, about 30 miles a week. Still, he thought he was ready. “They were probably running at a moderate effort,” he recalls. “But I was redlining it completely from a quarter of the way in until I got dropped a little over halfway.” One man in the group slowed down to keep him company. Jesse came back the next week, though. And he began running more miles during the week. Now he runs with the pack, and loves it. The running group, Jesse says, showed him something that, in retrospect, seems kind of obvious: Fast runners, no matter how gifted they are, train hard. And, he says, “if you work really hard, you will tend to get a lot better.” Then there is the runners’ camaraderie. Most in the Thursday night group linger afterward and then go out for dinner. So do the runners in Gene Gugliotta’s group, the Raritan Valley Road Runners. Women and men in that group often run together. Running friendships, though, really are different. They often include people you would never meet in any other way. People in their 20s run with people in their 50s. Professionals run with students. The affluent run with the less so. The men in the Thursday night group include a poet, two mathematicians, a seminarian, a historian, investment bankers, an aerospace engineer, a home builder and a retired letter carrier. The women include Tara, an electrical engineer; Claire, the executive director of a nonprofit program that sends recent Princeton graduates to Latin America for one-year internships; and Amy, a research historian. The disparate backgrounds of the runners “make for some unusual conversations on runs, let me tell you,” says Patrick Walsh, 40, the poet in the men’s group. The topics, Jesse says, are “more or less all the topics people steer away from in social situations.” Religion, for example. And politics. You may also end up revealing quite a bit about yourself to those running friends. Maybe it’s because you don’t see them in your other life. Maybe it’s because you’re running side by side and not looking at each other. Or maybe, as Amy says, “some of the intimacy of a running club comes from seeing each other unmasked, in a way, in bare clothing, sweaty and gross, at good times and bad.” For whatever reason, as the miles pass, people often confide very personal stories. “There’s a certain baring of the soul that you get through runs,” Amy notes. Ben Cheever, a 59-year-old writer from Pleasantville, N.Y., who runs marathons and who shows up nearly every weekend to run with a group that meets at a school parking lot, spoke of the same experience. “You get a picture of people and, I’m afraid, they get a picture of you, that you wouldn’t ordinarily get,” he says. For example, he said, the last time he ran 20 miles, he was getting desperate for something to take his mind off the effort. “I called out: ‘All right. The worst moment of your life.’ ” One man told of the time he dropped his son off at college. Ben, the author of a new book, “Strides: Running Through History With an Unlikely Athlete” (Rodale Books, 2007), used to run with a group that met at a Y.M.C.A. in New York. “None of us knew each other in any other way,” he says. “So we could tell each other anything, and we did.” They knew about love affairs and personal matters at work. They knew about family problems, he says. And they trusted that nothing they said would seep beyond that group. “I have two separate sets of friends,” Gene Gugliotta says. “When I’m involved with my running friends, it doesn’t involve my family.” Sometimes his other friends, the ones who involve his family, ask about his running, but Gene, 48, tries to spare them the details. “I don’t bore them by going into depth about it,” he says. “I realized we have other things to talk about.” And, he notes, all that talk about speeds and distances and training regimens can be dull, dull, dull to those who do not run. “You know how much work it takes to get where you want to go in racing, but it is very hard for a nonrunner to relate to,” he says. And when someone tries to mix running friends and nonrunning friends, the result can be like oil and water. Ben Cheever says he went to a 50th birthday party that included both groups. They ended up in separate rooms.
      Trent - THANK YOU for this post. What an inspiration. I have been trying to set up a running group here in my town, where there isn't surprisibngly enough, a formal "club". This is a great story, and I hope I can post this on my new website.
      Next up: A 50k in ? Done: California-Oregon-Arizona-Nevada (x2)-Wisconsin-Wyoming-Utah-Michigan-Colorado
        So very true. I can relate to almost every point made.