“OK, there are rules in group running,” Chuck said as we ran along in the semi-light of a cool spring morning a half dozen years or more (?) ago.
“One: We pick an pecking order and stick to it. If a car comes, I’ll fall back behind you, every time. You fall behind Lisa every time. That way we’re not bumping into each other trying to figure out who goes where when a car is coming up over a hill.”
“Two: When it’s dark, wear a reflective vest and bring a flashlight. Hold the flashlight down so that it shines on your feet so that drivers can see that the bouncing light ahead is a runner. Runners make ugly hood ornaments.”
“Three: The slowest runner sets the pace. If there’s four or more, it’s normal to separate by pace and the faster ones will go ahead, but never leave a runner behind.”
After many years of nothing but solo running, I was immediately hooked on group running. It was such a change of pace, figuratively and literally. They made me faster. They made me run the hills. They made the miles fly by. They shared their lives, as did I. They gave me a good reason to out of bed at 5 a.m. on cold winter mornings — I couldn’t disappoint my friends, they’d be waiting for me.
It was all good for a year or two, but then Chuck quit running and the slower members of the group stopped coming. Those that were left were too fast for me. I was running at my race pace and still felt like I was holding them back.
One of them would always stay behind with me, no matter how much I insisted they go ahead. “No, really, guys, you can go ahead. I know the way back,” I would say.
But they never left my side, even if it meant sacrificing their workout.
I ended up finding new running friends who ran at a pace that was better for me.
That’s normal. Running groups change frequently. Members come & go. Some quit running, some get injured, some slow down, and some get faster and need a speedier pace group to push them further. It happens.
Runners join groups for different reasons, but, for most, it’s primarily to get faster or farther. Group momentum, pride and peer pressure will get you pretty far.
At this point, for me, 15+ years into my running life, it’s all social. As a busy working mom, what other uninterrupted time do I have to chit-chat, make new friends, get advice, and bitch?
I run to hang out with my friends. And, I have a ton of them, including four informal groups — a Monday night speed work/track group, a Wednesday night (hills) group, a Saturday long run group, and a group of newer runners (I call them the winery runners, because that’s when we started running together) that I occasionally run with when I can fit it in.
The Winery group used to be a slower/easy-pace group that I ran with purely for the fun of it — to meet new people, make new friends and to get reacquainted with old friends. But the fastest members of that group are now matching my pace, and I have a hard time holding back and resisting the urge to keep up. So I’m typically in the lead pack, even when I don’t really want to be.
And that’s where I was on Wednesday night.
“Should we wait?” Leslie asks as we run on the bayfront connector trail on our way from Penn State Behrend to a bar in downtown Erie.
Stacey and I agree that we should. What’s the point of a group run if you don’t run with the group, right?
We wait at Broad Street to let the two or three smaller groups of women join us. I count 9. We started with 10.
“Where’s Eloise?” someone asks.
“Oh, she’s always behind. Probably taking pictures of the clouds. You know her, she’ll catch up, she always does. Let’s just go. She probably turned around with Sarah and is driving down to the bar now.”
Instinct told me to wait. But, the group assured me that running behind was typical for Eloise. Nothing to worry about.
So we went on.
I followed with an uneasy feeling in my gut. As one of the faster members of the group and a wise, veteran runner, I should’ve ran back to look for her, but I didn’t. I should’ve insisted she not be left behind. Not here. Not in the middle of the city at nearly 8 p.m. at night. I know better.
At 8th street, a large loose dog runs at us. I don’t see it until Leslie screams. We run faster and the dog runs off, back to it’s owner.
Eloise is terrified of dogs (we’re alike in this way…and many more). Again, I think,”I have to go back. What if that dog comes out again when she runs by?”
But, I keep running.
When we get to the bayfront, we wait for the rest of the group to catch up so we can cross the highway together. Still no Eloise.
We stop at the parking lot below the Tap House. We cool down, sip water, stretch, and ponder what happened to our happy-go-lucky Eloise.
“She’s probably down at the dock, taking pictures of the sunset,” someone says. “No, she’s probably on someone’s yacht by now, catching perch. She’ll come back with some great story,” another speculates. “Oh, please, she’s probably sitting at the bar right now, making friends and taking pictures.”
Sufficiently stretched and cooled, we walk a block up the road to the restaurant.
Eloise is, just as her best friend called it, sitting at the outside bar with a beer in hand. But she is not smiling. Our laughter and smiles fade as it become apparent, she’s not happy with us. “You left me! You guys left me. I had to run 12th street, by myself. I was terrified. I could’ve been killed. I …”
S@#$. I knew it. I knew it. I knew I should’ve went back. Twelfth street? Why the hell did she take 12th street? By herself? At night? This is all my fault. I know better. I’m the veteran here. Dammit.
We stand in an awkward group 20 feet away. Who is brave enough to approach angry Eloise? Her bestie takes the bullet. She calms her down.
Within 15 minutes, Eloise is telling us all about her terrifying run through the bowels of east Erie — a place I wouldn’t run at 8 p.m. at night even with 10 friends. Most of the group is sitting around, laughing at her tale and the treasures she collected along the way — an American flag, a crumpled Burger King crown, an empty pack of L&M cigarettes, a picture of a dead mouse.
I manage to smile and laugh a bit, but mostly I feel sick to my stomach. I worked at the newspaper for 12 years. I know the terrible things that happen on those streets she ran. By herself. At dusk.
I sleep fitfully that night, bothered by thoughts of what could’ve happened. Chuck’s voice is in my head: “…never leave a runner behind.” I know better. We were lucky.
I owe Eloise, our sweet, “crazy” (and I say that with all love and affection) cheerleader and friend a big apology. I hope this will do. This and the promise that it will never happen again.
I’ll happily chase butterflies, stop for photo ops, and pick up trash with her on future runs. I’m not in it for the speed or distance these days anyway. Been there, done all that. All I really want to do now is enjoy the journey, not race to the finish.
Though, this run does go down as the one in which Eloise beat Heather Cass:
Read Eloise’s much more humorous take on her East Side Adventure run here.
About Just Write
“What ends up revealing itself when free writing is that everything has meaning. That is a magnificent gift of writing. If we write from a free heart-gut place, our souls start speaking.”