The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Runner: Running to the Beat of a Lonely Heart

Portland Marathon Day, by Scott Branscum (2013)

Portland Marathon Day, by Scott Branscum (2013)

Just twelve days ago I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my arrival in Portland, Oregon. I'd traveled 2,700 miles diagonally across a good portion of the United States and arrived exhausted late on a Tuesday to an empty apartment in Northwest: that night, it was air mattresses and internet connections-- tomorrow, the world (I thought). At first, there were so few hours in the day and so many fresh things to experience in my new state, that I hardly noticed the loneliness.

Granted, I’d moved here with my significant other, but something was different in Oregon– something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. As the initial wave of stress from the move subsided and after I’d settled into the idea that I no longer had a job to report to every morning, I began running more and more, exploring my neighborhood and the new city I lived in. Each exploratory run was solo and could have felt a little desolate, but my curiosity was rewarded with every step I took, and for awhile the sights, sounds, and smells of my new home overwhelmed the underlying emotion. It wasn’t until I ran my first race in Oregon– Fueled by Fine Wine— that I looked around me and realized what I’d forgotten back in Arkansas.

Macleay Trailhead, Forest Park, Portland, Ore.

Macleay Trailhead, Forest Park, Portland, Ore.

At Fueled by, I encountered some of the most brutal hills I’d ever seen or felt in my (albeit short) three years of running. I tried to run the climbs, then tried to speed walk them, and eventually became satisfied by the idea of merely finishing not caked in the bright mud of the Dundee Hills AVA. All around me, the majority-female field of fellow runners was smiling and paired up with other runner friends, patting each other on the back, sharing either praise or knowing glances with each other that soon enough, the comically awful hills would be over. I asked one woman if the course was especially bad this year, or if it was always this hilly. As the woman and her partner sailed in sparkly skirts over the hill ahead of me, she sang back that the course was always different, always difficult, and always a good place for best friends to run together.

I thought of Sarah, my Best Running Friend (BRF) back in the South and looked around. She would have loved this, I thought. Sarah was the kind of girl who met you at mile 20 of your first marathon to bring you your favorite snacks and run you in the last 10k of the race, even though she’d already run the half marathon that day herself. Suddenly, it felt both unfair and unbearable to be running our favorite distance– with a wine tasting at the end (another joint-favorite activity of ours)– without her. An intense loneliness came over me; I bore down, concentrated on my breathing and the number of my steps, and quietly finished the race.

Drops on Pine, Canon Beach, Ore.

Drops on Pine, Canon Beach, Ore.

When I first started running, I ran alone at night through the streets of Stifft Station in Little Rock, Arkansas. I had nothing, at first: no partner, no tech gear, no confidence. I wanted to gain a certain level of competence in running before I let anyone see how awful I was. Little did I know at the time, there was and is a wide swath of people who run exactly the same pace as me; moreover, people in my percentile love talking while they run and often become fast friends as a result of all their long training runs. Of course, by moving away from the state where I had built a community of running friends and outlets, I had come back to nothing. Although the number of short-sleeve tech shirts I owned had multiplied by many fold, I had no one to run with, no one to talk to on the long, slow, double-digit runs that crept up as I trained for the 2013 Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco.

Once I realized what was missing, it was all I could think about. I began to wonder if signing up for a full marathon and having no one to train with was a huge mistake. Without the encouragement of a BRF at my side, would I give up in the middle of some yet-to-be-run 20-miler?

Runners along the shore at my first Run Oregon race, the Tillamook Bay Run 10k.

Runners along the shore at my first Run Oregon race, the Tillamook Bay Run 10k.

My first attempt at meeting a new BRF took me to a hash run with the Portland Humpin’ Hash House Harriers on the Third of July. Maybe the name should have tipped me off that the group was a little outside of– well, let’s say my usual group of running folk. Alternatively, if I had visited their completely NSFW website at least once before throwing my bare calves and $5 into the brambly, mosquito-ridden swamps north of Portland, I might have realized that when the hashers call themselves “a drinking group with a running problem,” they aren’t kidding. When I run, I really just want my 30 to 60 minutes of cardio, and then I want to move on with my life. Go on a run with the hashers, however,  and you’ll be lost in the woods on a glorified, adult-version of a stop-and-go Easter egg hunt where the “Easter eggs” are thirty-packs of cheap beer and a fifth of something dangerous. Needless to say, despite repeated re-invites, I haven’t hashed again and still bear the uninspired official hasher name of “Just Anne.”

The very next morning, I met a new acquaintance at Mile 10 of the Foot Traffic Flat Half Marathon on Sauvie Island. It was her first half marathon, and I wanted to give her the same treat that my old BRF Sarah had given me when she ran me into the finish on my first full. Little did I know, my newbie runner friend was a beast– I could barely keep up with her, and I was only running the last 5k– Alana had already run 10 miles and was still pushing strong. I huffed and puffed the next few miles and peeled off well in advance of the finish line, saluting her strong finish as I dry heaved into the corn. Almost a year later, I still hope we will run together again, but the lesson I learned those two days was valuable. Not just anyone could be your BRF: pace and personality are equally important when you’re considering spending half your Saturday with an almost stranger.

Cumberland Trail, Forest Park, Ore.

Cumberland Trail, Forest Park, Ore.

Still a little lonely and terrified of marathon training along, I joined two MeetUp groups– NW PDX Trail Runners and Springwater Corridor Run and Cider. After realizing that the latter of those two had a self-reported 8:00 – 8:30 page (at least two minutes per mile faster than my healthiest top speed), I repeatedly RSVP’d to events through the trail runners’ group and then– terrified of meeting complete strangers and being outpaced and dropped on a group run– never showed up to a single MeetUp. Eventually, after months and months of failed attempts to come to a run, I left the group in shame. Sometimes on Saturday mornings, I still wonder what it would have been like to run up to Pittock Mansion from the lower Macleay Trail and back with them. Maybe someone would have been my pace– I’ll never know.

I tried group runs from the local shoe stores, and was always too breathless and nervous to talk to anyone on the runs or in the stores afterwards, nervously drinking my single, local beer after having been dropped from the main group and cutting my run from five miles to three so my slow feet would still return with the gazelles.

In August, I joined Run Oregon. Slowly but surely, I started to feel like I was a part of the running community in Oregon, even though I wouldn’t meet any of my fellow bloggers until November. For some reason, writing for Run Oregon made it okay to run alone. Reading reader comments and seeing all the likes and shares on Facebook meant that even though I didn’t have a BRF myself anymore, there were others out there in Oregon who identified with what I had to say and what I felt about running. I was not alone, even if my footsteps hit the ground in a pair rather than a quartet.

Fast forward to the spring of 2014– and it’s been one year of running without a best friend. While I’ve loved all-pace outlets like Coach Jim’s Elite Runners in Training, the Portland Marathon Clinic group runs, and the WRC (Women’s Running Club) Portland, I’ve grown into my solo skin. Running alone has made me a better runner psychologically, but I still can’t help missing my BRF. The gentle ache of residual loneliness aside, as I ran along the Cinco de Mayo Half Marathon course yesterday and saw familiar face after familiar face waving back at me, greeting my smile with their own, I felt so welcome and at home. Maybe Portland as a whole was my new Best Running Friend, I thought: maybe running to the beat of a lonely heart wasn’t so bad after all.

10 Comments on The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Runner: Running to the Beat of a Lonely Heart

  1. Love this :-))) Also, we run at the same pace 😉

  2. This was a great article, I am so glad that you have embraced Portland I really enjoy what you write, and I too have been running for about a year by myself. I used to run with friends that didn’t work a full time job, and I started a full time job, and they had to stay on “their” schedule. So I haven’t been running with anyone, but my daughter, in a long time except on race day when I drag one of my friends out to run with me 🙂

  3. Tung Yin // May 5, 2014 at 2:07 PM //

    I’ve been running alone (other than races, of course) for about 99.9% of my miles since I started in the beginning of 2011. I think I’d enjoy having a running partner for one run a week, but I do enjoy the solo time, whether it’s for watching TV on the treadmill, or listening to audiobooks outside, or just concentrating on a speed workout.

    • I would like someone to run with about two days a week—or a long run partner who can also get together with me and just TALK about running over drinks. Talking about running is almost as fun as running!

  4. Anne- I love this post because I am like you!!! I am “new” to organized running and have always feared the whole running groups, because I am not a FAST runner… but I run. I did the Oregon Half this weekend and finished at about an 11 minute mile pace. I have actually never ran with anyone else, always a solo runner, so don’t really know what its like to have a runner BFF… but so many of your sentiments are exactly what I’m thinking all the time. I have learned though that you are never alone out there are you? Not really…. 🙂 Maybe one of these days our paths will cross and I’ll see you at an event. Thanks for the story, I so related to it!

    • I’m so happy to hear that, Emily! Be sure to say hi to me if you ever see me out at a race or on the trails, and congrats on the Oregon Half!

  5. Geli Heidelberger // May 5, 2014 at 3:10 PM //

    So much in common… Pace, runs and races alone, and I’m Just Geli with the DH4.. 🙂

  6. Suesan // May 5, 2014 at 6:21 PM //

    Oh Anne, I have to echo what Geli just said, so much of our stories overlap! I have scoured group runs and joined race clinics just to have someone to run with. It can be kind of lonely at times. I’m in NW as well and probably run at the same pace. I hope to run into you as well.

  7. One of my BRFs can’t run for the foreseeable future, and the other is pretty seriously competing in another sport… and I’m signed up for two marathons this year! Fortunately, because of all of the running opportunities I’ve had with Run Oregon and also with my blog, I’ve met so many amazing people. A lot of the time, we run separately at races (we’re not the same pace) but we meet up for the post-race party and enjoy our beers 🙂 I’m not especially slow or especially fast… sometimes it’s just hard to find someone who matches your pace.

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