How Joining a Run Group Made Me a Better Runner
Running was a solo endeavor when I first picked up the habit 10+ years ago, living in Louisville, KY. All through college, running was my “me-time”; my time to recharge and challenge myself on my terms. When I moved to Chicago in 2008 I took to the lakefront path in the same fashion, and loved exploring my new city.
Shortly after moving, I found out there was a Nike run group that met weekly out of the Nike store on Michigan Avenue, a few blocks from our apartment, so I decided to give it a shot. I figured I could try a new route and meet some other runners in the community, but I had no idea what this run group experience would lead to!
I distinctly remember my first group run. I showed up, not knowing anyone, and felt completely comfortable. We were all there for the same reason, and from the looks of it, there was a wide range of abilities. I learned the route was an out-and-back, with different turn-arounds for distances of 3-7 miles. At this point, I was doing 4-5 miles on average, with around 7 miles for my long run, so I figured I’d go out for 5 miles with the 9:00 pace group.
We headed to the lakefront – taking it North which I never did – and I started chatting with the guy beside me about where we were from and if we were training for anything. Another girl joined in and suddenly I heard the pacer announce, “5-mile turn-around is just ahead, anyone doing 5, turn and head back at the water fountain”. I was surprised how fast 2.5 miles went, and while I was planning on doing 5, I felt great and didn’t want to leave the conversation, so I headed on for 6. At the 6-mile turn-around I was still having fun and ended up doing the whole 7-miles which flew by!
I floated home on cloud 9, I couldn’t believe how easy 7 miles felt and looked forward to returning week after week! Soon enough, 7 miles no longer felt like a long run, and on the weekends I would enjoy 9-10 mile runs on my own.
Not all run groups offer pacers, but I took advantage and when 9:00’s started to feel too easy, I bumped up to the 8:30 group. The “running more” made for the “running faster”, and soon enough I was doing a few runs with the 8:00 pacer! When we decided to move a few miles south, losing my walkable run group was a downside. While I still enjoyed many solo runs a week, I looked forward to this weekly social run, and wasn’t about to give it up!
I found Fleet Feet Chicago’s Chick’s Night, an all-women’s weekly group run. I had to take a train there, but once I started I was hooked! There were run/walkers, mid-packers and some fast women in this group, but you wouldn’t know who was who until we hit the path. I would run with a few chick’s ever so faster than myself, and started getting faster on my own runs. Unknowingly, I was doing a weekly tempo run which helped my speed overall. If I couldn’t talk comfortably, I’d listen to conversations around me and interject when I could. I was running with friends and the speed was a side-effect to be enjoyed! When I’d sign up for a race, there were undoubtedly other chick’s night runners racing as well, meaning I could have a friend to push me during the race.
This is the most impactful change joining a run group has given me. By nature, running is a solitary sport. There’s good in this – you’re truly racing yourself and you don’t rely on others to be able to run like in team sports – but there’s something magical in doing something you love with others who love it, too. I’ve made true friends through our weekly runs, and geeking out over pacing strategies, race-day weather, and the best things to eat while on a long run is a wonderful outlet.
I’ve been turned on to cool events by being intertwined in the running community; I’ve met Bart Yasso, Deena Kastor, Scott Jurek and Chris McDougall (Born to Run). I’ve attended seminars and expos, fun runs and yoga events, all with run group friends. The best is going for a solo long run and waving to 5 people I know, out doing the same thing!
The running community is the most welcoming and generous bunch I’ve encountered. Many of my friends have stopped mid-race to help an unknown runner who’s struggling. We clap each week for others who’ve set a new PR, and rally around those coming back from injury. I’ve joined friends volunteering as course marshalls, packet stuffers, and water-stop aides.
While I would nod and wave to others before immersing myself in the world of group running, I didn’t have that deep connection outside of running. Any running event I go to, I will see someone I know through my own 6-degrees of run group. There are so many ways to be involved that I would not have known about, and now I’m the one inviting others to help out.
If you don’t think a run group is for you, I hear you! I look forward to 12-milers by myself, and rely on that quiet time to balance my mind, but there are benefits to running with a group that caught me by surprise. I still run solo 80% of the time, but even a group run – or run with a friend – once a week has made a positive impact on my running. Running can be enjoyed in so many ways that you may not know of. Try it out at least once, you have nothing to lose 😉