One of the things I enjoy most about running is the time to myself. As a bit of an independent spirit, I love that nothing but my thoughts and limbs dictate when I take off, where I go and how fast I get there.
Recently though, I started to feel like I was losing my fire. Training just seemed to be making my legs achier, not faster. So when I saw on a running group on Twitter was hosting an 18K run a couple weeks ago, I decided to tag along. I’d never run with a real group before, but in the hope that a new route might re-inspire me, I meekly joined the hundred or so others standing around in sneakers at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. To my surprise, I left with not only a sunburn and a free t-shirt, but a whole new perspective on my running.
Lesson 1: Stop Avoiding Hills!
Running with others focused the spotlight right on my weaknesses. Although the 6 min/K pace group I chose felt like the right fit, every time we headed up an incline, I fell toward the back of the pack, and the only raspy panting I heard was my own. On my solo runs, I usually let myself slow way down – or avoid hills altogether. But to reach my goal on race day, I’d need to practice pushing and climbing at the same time.
Lesson 2: Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Speed
As a beginner, I get embarrassed when I compare my times with friends’ – especially those who run half marathons at a pace faster than I run 5Ks. Even when I PB, I don’t share my time unless someone asks. But here I was surrounded by a group of people who all chose to run at the same speed I was going. And many of them were veteran runners, with dozens of half and fulls to their name! When we got passed by the 7-minute pace group, nobody hung their head in shame – they just shared high fives with those going by.
Lesson 3: Pacers (And Peers) Are Magical
Following the group, I could let go and just chase the feet in front of me. Sometimes I zoned out or got so caught up in conversation that I didn’t even realize what street or K we were on. Once we finished, RunKeeper informed me it was the fastest pace I’d ever held for a run that long! I hadn’t even realized it, but the group forced me to hold back at the start and hustle later on when my lungs usually tempt me to take it easy.
Lesson 4: Do You
Peer pressure also got the best of me. As someone who can’t stomach gels, I typically fuel long runs with smaller beans and chews every kilometre or two. But no one else in my pace group was eating this way, so I mostly stopped after kilometre 6, except for one chew when I saw others taking gel at our halfway point. But while their gel gave them 22 grams of carbs, I probably only had about 12 to 15 – far less than I’m used to. I paid for it in the last 3K, when it started to feel like I was running through molasses instead of air.
Lesson 5: Breaks Are Allowed
I’ve always felt indulgent for taking my mid-run stretching/water/quesadilla breaks. One of the things that intimidated me about joining a group was the thought that I’d just have to keep going. Quesadillas never happened, but at kilometre 10, we did stop for a good 5 to 10 minutes to make sure everyone had time to get water.
Lesson 6: Be Prepared for Mid-Race Beer
Chatting with other runners gave me insight on so many things I’ve been wondering about as a newbie. I nerded out listening to their insider tips on my upcoming Half Marathon (expect giant crowds, consider carrying a cup for a beer mid-course) as well as marathons on my bucket list (Paris may be beautiful, but cobblestones and narrow streets make for challenging race conditions).
Lesson 7: Groups Aren’t Scary!
Just because you’re running with a group doesn’t mean you’re signing up for boot camp. Some people turned around mid-run because they had races the next day. Others sped up for the last few Ks to run at their goal race pace. Even when you run together, everybody’s there to get what they need out of their training that day. And overall, runners are a super friendly, welcoming bunch of people.