Every culture, it seems, has a variation of the old proverb “eat alone, die alone.” I assume the saying means that sharing the pleasure and intimacy of meals is one of the more important ways that we establish friendships and social networks. Those connections keep us healthy in more ways than one, and give us a reason to resist the depressing effects of aging.
I’ve been wondering whether it would make sense if there were a similar proverb that read “run alone, die alone.” Even after taking into account our various levels of introversion or extroversion, is it important to run with others to stave off our inevitable slide into decrepitude?
I think solitary running is a fine thing. When I’ve been around people too much, there’s nothing quite like heading out for a little “me party” where I can run at my own pace, speed up or slow down as the spirit moves me, and pay close attention to the workings of my body, all without the distraction of conversation. If I’m feeling ambitious about my training, I’m likely to be particular about how far I’m going and how fast. On those days, it’s not just running, it’s running with a purpose, and in that case, satisfaction comes from checking all the boxes and achieving the goal.
I used to do many more of my runs alone. Maybe I was more serious about my training then, or maybe I was still learning how to get along with other people. Whatever the reason, other than track workouts and the occasional group long run, I was more lone wolf than member of a pack.
These days I do most of my runs with other people. For example, if I think back over the last week, only one run was a solo effort, and all the rest were — to some extent — social occasions. Among other things, this means that I’m running at a wide variety of paces — sometimes much slower than my normal run pace, sometimes faster. I used to find this sort of thing frustrating, but now I rather like it. I even wonder whether this lack of routine provides a more varied training stimulus; but even if it doesn’t, it certainly provides mental stimulation.
(Back in college, my piano teacher often had me play pieces very slowly, paying close attention to the quality and accuracy of the movements of my fingers and hands. It was an effective way to break me of the bad habits and mistakes that infiltrated my playing when I tried to do everything at full speed. The analogy with running isn’t exact, because slowing down doesn’t stress the energy systems in the same way. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder whether there’s something to the notion of practicing movement at less than full speed as a way of training bio mechanical pathways to be more efficient. That’s a complicated question, and I’ll have to dig into it some other day.)
But mainly, what I experience when I run with other people is a feeling that we are investing in each others mental and physical well-being. We run. We talk. We might even talk and listen to each others latest problems. Or, if I’m running with a current or former high school athlete, we might talk training and goals. With my closest friends and running peers, we might even run in silence — a comfortable, calm silence that has been made possible by years and years of shared experience. The important common factor in all of these different scenarios is that the very act of scheduling a run together is an act of cooperation that gets us out the door in a healthy way.
Strange that the last run I did completely solo I ended up running too hard.
That was on Sunday when the Memorial Day holiday scattered our usual group to the winds. Without the comfort of the usual gang for a long run, I headed out on my own and soon began to pick up the pace, impatient to reach the next mile a little faster than the last. With no one to restrain me, I hammered too much, and felt like I had needlessly trashed my legs for no good training reason or other reason.
The next day was an easy run with a former student, conducted at a gentle pace that set things right again. It seemed to me that my running companion that day was just one of many “better angels,” whose presence helped guide me away from the pointless, self-destructive patterns of behavior that played out when I ran alone.
“The better angels of my running nature” — I like that.
I admit, I still like running alone. I don’t think I could ever do without it, completely. At the same time, becoming more open to running with others is, I think, a consequence of recognizing that I also value the guidance, motivation, and encouragement that communal running offers.
Run with others, die eventually… but maybe not quite as soon, and maybe not alone.