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On Group Running

Two months ago I joined a local running group through the Meetup.com social organizing website. I knew a couple of the guys in the group from the pub run that I'd been attending for a while, and they invited me to go out to the Monday night runs with this group. I'd rejected a couple of previous invitations because I was intimidated by the idea of imposing myself into an already established--and rather serious--running group. But I also had the Chicago Marathon--a race I'd signed up for a bit spontaneously--looming in October, which meant I'd have to do some heavy training throughout the summer. Based on previous experience, I knew I was not likely to tough out the hell-like heat of summer training on my own, so I thought I'd give the group running a go. I should also add the disclaimer that I had a crush on one of the guys who'd invited me to join. (If you see the potential for disaster already, you are smarter than I was.)

My first meet-up with the group was awkward and humiliating. The group meets in a parking lot next to a huge park with over 11 miles of paved running/biking path. Everyone stands around and socializes--just my luck--until it is 7:00pm and the group leader announces the start. I should also mention that the guy I had a crush on is socially quiet and was of little help to my newbie status. So I introduced myself to some of the folks, finding a friendly but brief welcome here and there. I knew from my crush-friend that the guys and ladies typically run separately because of their running paces, so I tried to get a feel for who I might be running with by asking relevant questions. That didn't lead anywhere, so I did what I still do best when I am an awkward situation among unfamiliar runners--I stretched. I stretched my hamstrings, my quads, my calves, my shoulders, my biceps; I popped my hips, cracked my neck, my ankles, and even my knuckles--a major contributor to a successful run. I can do this forever, and I actually enjoy it. In fact, I'm quite good at it--more so than running. I even pulled out some yoga poses (the ones that look the least like yoga poses), which some of the other runners probably found obnoxious. But I am often still outside of my comfort zone with running--even after nearly three years. Add a group of strangers to the mix, and I cling immediately to the familiar.

Finally, after ten excruciating minutes of social discomfort and achieving a Gumby-like state with my body, it was time to go. I knew pretty well who I'd be pacing with, so I stayed close to those women--but not too close. In the first couple of miles, the women talked among themselves about other runners, about their personal lives, about things known collectively to them. I would chime in every now and then to ask a question about so-and-so (another runner, usually) and to contribute in any way I could to the conversation. My attempts were not exactly encouraged, so I just stopped talking and tried to keep the pace--which was faster than I was used to. Everyone stopped for water at the two-mile water stop--a welcome break--and then one woman asked if I was doing the full six miles (some others turn around after two for a total of four), and without hesitating I said I was. I felt a tremendous need to prove myself.

After turning around at the three-mile point, my biggest running nemesis crept in to plague me. I could feel the cramping start up in my intestines. I knew from there it would continue to move through to my colon and intensify with accumulative mass and pressure until my bowels, and the constant compacting of their contents from each pounce on the pavement, would not hold out. In a moment of pure degradation, I quietly verbalized my sudden need to go to the bathroom, as if seeking permission to depart from the group to perform a basic human function. I said I could just dip into the woods, which surrounded the path on either side (I'd done this before on solo runs, but I'd never had to manage it in a group run). Someone pointed to a spot where I might go, but said to hurry because the guys might be coming back soon. I wouldn't have minded if the other women went on without me at that point, but my digestive calling came right as we were again approaching the two-mile water stop, so they said they'd wait for me up there. I did my deed and met back up at the water stop to then finish up the remaining two miles.

Prior to this run, I had just finished my third half-marathon of the racing season, so this mere six-miler should have been a breeze for me. However, my pace and my ability to push myself had slipped pretty significantly over the past year after an injury and a resulting fear of hard training. So now that the most pressing (pun intended) concern was taken care of, I still had another major issue to deal with--my breathing. I simply wasn't used to the faster pace these women were running, and I couldn't keep an even breath flow. I felt like I was hyperventilating, or at least what I imagined it to be. I knew we were only about a mile to the finish, but I just didn't feel I could keep up any longer, so I had to disgrace myself and tell the others that I had to walk and that they should go ahead. I knew there was probably some group running etiquette that said veteran runners should stay with a new runner, at least in the first run. They tried to encourage me to continue, as we were so close to finishing, and I insisted that I couldn't keep running--"it's my breathing." I figured that would keep them from pushing, and it did. One of the runners reminded me of how to get back to the parking lot and then took off.

I felt pretty defeated at having to walk, especially after my unavoidable pit stop in the woods, and to make matters worse, the guys, who were running eight miles, were beginning to come in behind me. This meant that my crush would see me walking by myself, not having made it in with the other women. He soon passed me and uttered some words of encouragement--you're doing good, or you're almost there--something completely good-inentioned that could be taken as a means of condescension if one were in my current state of mind. After catching my breath, I ran the rest of the way in. I had (barely) survived my first group run.

As if the run had not been enough of a breaking-in experience, I still had to endure more post-run socializing at a nearby bar. But that is a post for another time.

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