Running is a funny thing. It’s kind of like eating. You can do something that’s purely functional, doling out the exact nutrients you need to survive or the exercise you need to stay mechanically fit. Or you can do that thing as a social activity, in a manner that feeds your heart and your soul.
And that’s how I found myself manning the special-needs-bag-check of an ultra on a humid April night, high-fiving sweaty runners on their fourth or fifth or 12th punishing 10km loop back and forth along a beach path, and horsing around with a plant sprayer the size of my head.
This was one of the annual overnight ultra races put on by local Singapore running group Running Guild: as many 10k loops as you can manage, or wanted to manage, in 16 hours. As I chatted with the other volunteers, common themes kept popping up over and over. “I’ve done Running Guild races before and I love them so I wanted to give back.” “We know what runners need.” “I wanted to support (runners).”
The refrain sounded familiar. Here’s why.
When I began running more seriously, seven or eight years ago, I gravitated towards other runners. The year I ran my first half marathon, a few coworkers wanted to run their first half marathons too; it was a case of the blind leading the blind, but we enjoyed training together and muddled through to the finish. I joined a triathlon training group, despite just barely being able to float, and became fast friends with the slow swim lanes. At track sessions we’d moan, “Not another 400m!” but laugh and run it anyway, our shared suffering drawing us closer.
When I ran the Tokyo Marathon in 2011, a group of Singapore runners who first met on an online forum had pre- and post-race meetups over food, swapping war stories. We don’t necessarily see eye to eye politically or philosophically. We may not have become friends if running hadn’t brought us all together. But we are now, and that’s the point.
Running’s instant community extended online, too. My little running blog and other social media brought visitors, both local and from across the globe. Some have become real or virtual training partners, PR ‘frenemies’ and friendly competition, pushing each other to put in the work we need to excel. Two women in particular have been my source of long-run laughs, the running BFFs with whom I can happily overshare about bodily functions. We’re all mothers now, once or twice over, and our running journeys have all taken slightly different paths depending on our seasons of life, but we’ll always have that in common.
Last year I moved halfway around the world. Despite being seven months pregnant, despite it being late winter, I went and found a local running group. I waddled around the track a couple of times, doing modified workouts with them before giving birth. They were my return to speedwork, four or five months postpartum. I ran a 5K with the Community Running team. I love that I can move to a different continent, find a running group, and instantly have at least that one thing in common with dozens of other people. I found one real-life running friend by spotting her with a jogging stroller and a toddler my son’s age, and literally chasing her down on the playground. Not creepy at all…
We’ve talked before about how to build your own running community. I’d add one thing: In searching for running networks, I’ve consciously sought out the sort of running groups whose contribution to the community I admire. They aim to leave it better than they found it, like the Singapore Glove Project, which organizes ‘trash runs’ – fartlek outings to pick up litter at parks and beaches.
I look for fellow runners whose philosophies on life and competition I respect, who can be competitive without tearing down the achievements of others or being patronizing towards runners with a more laid-back outlook. (Salty Running itself is one such group!) Volunteering is probably my favorite way to find like-minded runners.
This Christmas, my running community challenge to myself and to others is: how can you give back? How can you extend a hand to others in my old shoes, who might be in need of some running community, and then do it over and over until bonds are truly formed?