In February of 2016, I journeyed to a Georgia state park in an adjacent county to compete in a trail race. Though I initially planned to complete the marathon (two loops around the park), I decided to opt for the half marathon as my knee was sore from a trail race a few weeks prior. Incidentally, I believe aging runners – which is accompanied by more soreness – become wiser runners, and dropping to the shorter distance proved to be wise. I had a strong finish, but came to the realization a few days later that the path to that commendable finish was an isolated one. To put another way, I ran alone for much of the day.
Late in the race, I flew by a crouched photographer and told him, “It’s lonely out here!” I was alone. No runners were behind me or in front of me. I felt lonely too. I didn’t feel the breath of someone steps behind me or see a faster competitor on the horizon. The running community is large, for sure, but I wonder if others mirror my loneliness on a sporadic basis during their respective runs.
According to Three Dog Night, one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do. Now a runner of ten years, I can attest to the truth of the first line of this iconic song. That said, perhaps there’s some value in making a distinction between the words “alone” and “lonely.” While they seem similar at first glance, context provides a different story.
I think of being alone in terms of time and space. As far back as I can remember, I have run alone and trained alone – though this has been by choice. Group runs are the exception though. Settling in with other like-minded folks to knock out a few miles is a welcome respite from isolation. The running community is a wondrous thing for me, but there is something to be said about time spent alone as well. In the words of Henry David Thoreau, “I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.”
While being alone can be beneficial in terms of focus and clarity, becoming lonely for too long can be unhealthy. Joseph Roux put it like this: “Solitude vivifies; isolation kills.” Like I noted moments ago, I think of being alone from a spatial standpoint. Loneliness, by contrast, refers to emotion, a longing of the heart and spirit to be in close proximity to another. I believe that running encapsulates both of these words. They dwell together and overlap from time to time. But too much of either is not good.
Physical space – think miles and miles of a road – is where these two words are fully revealed. Space for a foot race on black asphalt. What’s unique about road races is that participants can choose what strategy to pursue. Some may go it alone while others may come alongside a training partner, friend, or total stranger (they don’t strangers for long!). All of these expressions are valid. Solitude and community mingle together in every race, road or trail.
Trail races are a distinct scene. In my half marathon last year, the herd started together for seven tenths of a mile to provide some early separation among bodies. Tearing through the woods after leaving the road amplified this separation more as gaps between runners and smaller herds emerged more and more. With no pace groups, however, people clustered together or tried to chase down others to pass.
A few days after the race, I remembered a song about solitude. While I didn’t stand alone that particular day, I proceeded to run alone for a sizable chunk of those 13.1 miles. I kept my pace steady as I charged up and down the hills and navigated the rocks, vines, stubs, sticks, and mud beneath my mighty shoes. And then I caught sight of someone (yes!) and eventually passed him (and a few others) in route to the finish chute. Needless to say, the solitude vanished quickly as men, women, and children gathered together under the pavilion next to the finish and chatted about their experience. I wonder if any others felt alone or lonely like I did during the race. Perhaps, but under the pavilion, we were neither alone nor lonely. We were together, and it was good.