My feet were losing momentum as I found myself pushing toward the top of the hill. I went from a run to a shuffle to a power hike. And, soon, a walk. As I leaned forward, two hands pressing slightly on my thighs, I could see two people up ahead. Colorful shadows, familiar and friendly.
I decided to pull aside. Stopping my watch, I took a welcome break at mile 18 of a 22-mile training run. And then I found myself lying down. Full stop.
And while the temps screamed summer, the crunch of branches beneath their feet signaled that fall would soon be arriving. I could hear them getting closer and just like that, with a lot less grace and agility than I had hoped, I popped up.
The figures were two running friends, running the trail together. And my antics were just a practical joke that walked the line between funny and weird. But we stopped and talked for a few minutes. The conversation went beyond banal pleasantries but still felt stilted and slightly long as we all waited to hit start on our respective Garmins.
And so we parted ways. Them: together. Me: on my own.
In another time, in another place, I would have spent the next few miles with feelings of loneliness and exclusion sitting in my stomach. The clawing suspicion that they couldn’t get away from me fast enough. Haunted by childhood memories of being the girl who was picked last. The girl who walked the mile. The girl who didn’t quite fit in.
The woman who felt like she still didn’t quite fit in.
I’ve never wanted for running friends. I’ve been lucky to train with people. But there are times when it feels like the faces come and go. Days I feel like I’m floating from group to group without ever seeming to become a part of it.
Then the pandemic hit and most running groups, organized or informal, hit pause. Training solo became less lonely and more vogue. The internal monologue about a missed invitation could be replaced with a podcast or audiobook.
I opted for the ambient soundtrack of the trails, about 45 minutes from my home. My start time was often dictated by the bladder of our new puppy (a pandemic-prompted adoption). My distance was determined by a somewhat arbitrary decision to follow a 50K training plan.
The dirt trails, the towering trees soon became my companions. As the weeks passed by, I thought more about whether I was going the right way than if I had said the wrong thing. And as I anticipated the momentary glimpses of white-tailed deer, I stopped thinking about how it all fit together. How I fit in.
Because in those miles, in those hours, I knew where I belonged.
Read more Seven Months into the Pandemic essays.