I used to run alone. I’d get up early to jog around my neighborhood or squeeze in an evening sprint before darkness fell. In fact, solitude was what drew me to running. I loved hitting the trails to escape the wider world or turning up the volume on my headphones in familiar territory close to home.
Then things changed. I found myself single in 2018 outside Dayton, Ohio, where I hadn’t had the chance to make many friends. Suddenly, running solo only exacerbated my feelings of loneliness. An activity that used to symbolize freedom became a painful reminder that once again, I was alone. And I didn’t always want to be.
Making friends as an adult can be difficult. It’s hard to break into established social networks people have from childhood, high school and college. Still, I was determined, and I thought I might be able to build myself a new community by meeting other people who also liked to run.
That year, I began joining every group run or meetup I could find, especially those with women in my local She RUNS This Town and Black Girls RUN! chapters. The running part was fun, but when we slowed our pace enough to enjoy our conversations, we could commiserate over the toddler temper tantrums we’d endured that morning or the intricacies of co-parenting and rebuilding after divorce. When time allowed, we’d grab coffee or breakfast after running our miles, which helped strengthen our connections even more.
Soon those long runs through the woods and short runs around local parks became about more than maintaining our physical fitness. I always knew that running buddies could give me a level of accountability I might not have when I’m running by myself. But it’s amazing to watch my running partners transform into good friends. A run now becomes a chance to catch up, blow off steam, celebrate, commiserate, and bond. And when we were able to gather outside in summer 2020 following the lifting of some COVID-19 pandemic restrictions by the CDC, our group runs helped me maintain my mental health as much as my physical well-being.
Together, our running group took on new challenges. When one person wanted to run a 5K, others signed up as well. If someone needed to complete a double-digit run, she could always find at least one person to join her for part of it.
Call it positive peer pressure, but I began registering for more races because I knew my friends would be there. Finishing a race left me feeling empty back when I ran solo. As much as I loved the thrill of competing, my sense of accomplishment was tempered by the void I felt knowing no one was waiting for me at the finish line with a hug, high five or fist bump to celebrate my effort.
Now my social calendar bubbles with 5Ks, 10Ks and relays. Often, our group challenges each other to venture outside our comfort zones.
In May 2021, one of my running buddies posted on social media that she’d signed up for a nighttime trail race. Great for her, I thought. Couldn’t be me. Trail running was more about relaxation for me, even though I did look forward to my regular trail meetups with my running buddies.
I met up with six of them one evening for a trail run/walk two weeks later. One mentioned that she too planned to run the nighttime race. The others chimed in, saying they might sign up as well.
“I’m really scared of running in the dark,” I said.
The women urged me to register. We’d all do it together, they said.
Six weeks later, in June 2021, I found myself in the middle of the woods navigating a 10K on a rugged trail with only a headlamp to light my way under the jet-black sky. I could barely see anyone’s face, just other small beams illuminating the darkness like low-hanging stars.
My friends were right there with me.