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In the first few minutes of eager chatter and elevated heart rates, our straining for quality breaths seems matched. Then, inevitably, I notice her inhales and exhales fall into a comfortable rhythm—while I am left huffing and puffing away. There’s no doubt that running with a faster friend is physically challenging. But, for me, that was never the most uncomfortable part about running with someone who pushes the pace. No, the reason I’ve shied away from meet-ups with speedier runners had more to do with my confidence.
At its best, running allows me to set aside comparisons to others and push myself farther. This struck me when my high-school cross-country coach told us our purpose was “to be racers, not runners.” Not me, I thought. I’m here for the workout and time with friends.
Realizing that helped me fall more in love with the experience of lacing up my shoes for time on the pavement or trails. This became my much-needed emotional release during difficult times in college. Upcoming races gave me goals when I felt aimless after graduation. And miles on unfamiliar roads with new running groups helped me feel at home when I made a big move.
In groups like that, the ability to fall in with someone who naturally matched my pace helped me feel at ease. If that person wanted to speed up, no big deal. I would just strike up a chat with someone else. The conversation also seemed to give me a boost of energy, enabling me to go farther and have more fun than I did on my own.
So, why is it I assumed every other person I meet had that racer mentality my coach encouraged? For a long time, that was especially true when I teamed up with a speedier running buddy outside the safe confines of a group. Any confidence and contentment I had with my running was replaced with self-consciousness. Will she think that was a wasted run because I asked to slow down? Is the sound of my labored breathing bothering her? Why can’t I just go faster? For all the aspects of running with a friend that I enjoyed, many outings ended with me feeling guilty for keeping her from her best.
Then, recently, I had a realization just like the one that transformed my perspective on running way back in high school: The thoughts I’m projecting onto my buddy are never ones I have when I’m the faster friend. Sure, on those days, I’m glad I get to run. More than that, though, I am grateful for the camaraderie.
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I admire the type of racer my cross-country coach described. They are the ones the rest of us are inspired by, the ones who set the bar and, generally, the ones who don’t seek out running companions. For them, the goal is the glory.
Still, despite my former coach’s motivational speech, I think runners outnumber racers. That doesn’t mean we runners don’t still have time goals and don’t enjoy pushing ourselves. We are just fueled by conversation, not competition.
Acknowledging this helped me accept that if whoever I am running with isn’t worried about me holding her back, then I shouldn’t be either. Besides, there is a good chance that we will gain more together—both in mileage and in fulfillment.