Running While Introverted

This post was originally published on this site

Three minutes into my first half marathon, I thought I would lose my mind.

I’d decided to run it with the “2 ½ hours” group, not trusting myself alone to set a steady pace and happy to be among others who, like me, had no loftier goal than finishing alive. Sure, I’d never run in a group before (or even alongside a single other person), but this was an event, with crowds and cowbells and music blasting at the start line, so I was fully prepared for a different kind of running experience from my norm of solitude. What I didn’t anticipate was that the two pacers for the “2 ½ hours” group were planning to carry on a conversation for the full 13.1 miles, loud enough for the whole pack to hear and join in.

I was frantic.

So I did exactly what you’re not supposed to do. I took off, madly zigzagging to get ahead of the crowd (“Sorry!” “Sorry!”) until I reached a relatively isolated spot beyond hearing range and, shooting regular glances over my shoulder, held my lead for the rest of the race, finishing not only alive, but at a better time than I’d ever, in my wildest dreams, imagined.

When you’re an introvert, the need for quiet is a powerful motivator.

Until that race, I hadn’t realized just how much my running — the physical act of running — depends on my being able to think, how much I rely on quiet for energy. The best runs (that is, the easiest) are those in which I’m so deep in thought — revising a bit of writing, weighing the pros and cons of a difficult decision — the uphills barely register, the miles disappear. I’m fortunate to live in a rural area in northern Vermont where I can usually run in solitude, where the noise of traffic and interactions with others are rare. When there is another person on the route who shouts something at me — Hey! How’s it going? — the disruption can be jolting, pulling me out of my reverie but not quite into full consciousness.

Running, for me, is not a social activity. It is an extremely private affair.

It has taken me a while to admit this. When I began running, what I found nearly as debilitating as the onslaught of pain was the sense that I was doing something against my nature, something I wasn’t supposed — maybe not even allowed — to do. I was 61 when I started nearly five years ago, with decades’ worth of entrenched notions of who I was — and wasn’t — to contend with. I’m a hiker, an outdoorsy person, but being outdoorsy is not the same as being a runner. Runners are athletes: outgoing, competitive souls who thrive in groups, love events, gain energy from running among hordes, cheer, high-five, and wear bright, logo-screaming gear. This was not me — quiet, non-sporty, non-groupy me. I knew this. Everyone who knew me knew this.

But I wanted to be in as good shape as possible. I wanted to exhaust myself outside on a regular basis, right out my door. I wanted to run.

So I ran past my neighbors’ houses with my head down, hoping no one would see me until I was well outside the village. I told none of my friends. I didn’t want to hear Running? You? It was bad enough to be handicapping myself with such doubt; I didn’t need confirmation of it from others.

Meanwhile, at the same time that I was attempting to keep my running under wraps, I was doing all kinds of outgoing things that I thought runners were supposed to do: waving at oncoming cars (outside the village, that is); shouting cheerful encouragement at other runners; buying garish running gear (is there any other kind?); signing up for a 5K in which everyone wears a Santa suit. I was leading a double life, attempting invisibility while at the same time hoping to establish my bona fides as an extroverted jock.

I had no idea, in other words, who I was as a runner. I had no idea whether I could even call myself a runner. Throw in the onset of muscle pain in my buttocks and leg caused by piriformis syndrome and then a touch of knee and thigh pain identified as iliotibial band syndrome, and it’s a wonder I ever got into my running shoes and out the door.

Help came from two unexpected sources.

“Are you training for a race?” my neighbor Katie emailed me a couple of weeks after I’d started running. “I see you out there all the time!” Horrified (Busted!), hoping to contain the damage, I confided in her my hope that no one in the village had noticed me running — or would notice me running for the foreseeable future. And what did Katie do, but the next time I ran past her house, she exploded out the front door, shouting and waving, “HEY EVERYBODY! LOOK WHO’S RUNNING! LOOK WHO’S RUNNING!” I waited for the apocalypse — or at least for another neighbor to come out and laugh or tell me to go home. But all that happened was that I kept on running. That’s it. I kept on running.

Nothing else happened. No one put up road blocks. No one stood aghast at my presumptuousness. Katie, receding into the distance, was cheering me on. And so I laughed at the absurdity of what I’d been fearing, laughed at the straitjacket of a definition I’d fashioned and had been trying to fit into, laughed with the awareness — with the sheer exhilaration of the awareness — that I could take that straitjacket off. There was no need for me to change anything about myself in order to be a “runner” except to run.

But the sweetest assurance came about a year into things, when I had what was, for me, the one great running encounter of all time. It was on a favorite part of my route, a quiet, narrow, shaded stretch of dirt road. The young man approached from the opposite direction with a long and easy lope. Just before he was across from me, he reached out his hand at waist height. Without thinking, I reached out mine, and we connected. Briefly, gently.

No words were exchanged, no stride was broken. I’m guessing there were at least 30 years between the two of us, with all the attendant differences in athleticism and coolness, but none of that mattered. There was recognition in that touch. Mutual acknowledgment. Mutual respect.

And silence. It was the unbroken silence between us that had me flying the rest of the way home.

Judy Chaves writes and runs in North Ferrisburgh, Vt.