A FB acquaintance of mine posted an article recently about why people post their run routes, workouts, and gym photos on social media. The article’s author, and my acquaintance and many of her commenting friends, claim it is because those people are vain and need huge amounts of attention to feed their gaping bottomless pits of ego. The article features screenshots of men lifting obscene amounts of weight in a fancy mirrored gym, women in Kate Hudson’s pricey workout clothes with perfectly highlighted and recently styled hair. Their faces are not red and blotchy and sweat-streaked–no, they are perfectly smooth and bronzed, and their eyeliner is a work of art, and their mascara has not yet begun to transform them into Heath Ledger in a nurse’s uniform walking away from an exploding hospital. Their outfits are dry and wrinkle-free, and match their $250 color-coordinated athletic shoes.
Spoiler alert: The people pictured in that article’s accompanying photos might be looking for a strong shot of ego, but those are not workout photos they are posting. I mean, maybe Captain America with his cartoonishly large barbell is actually doing the work, but those photos mostly have nothing to do with “making gains” or “crushing it” at the gym, or working toward a 5K PR.
I can probably count on one hand the times I’ve posted an actual photo of myself post-workout or run–but I’ve done it. I’ve also posted numerous run stats and the occasional HIIT data on Facebook, and I frequently take a screenshot of my run metrics and text it to my husband and my best friend, who are both runners, sometimes with a photo like the one below. Why? Well, let me assure you, it is not because I think I look like I should be photographed. It is not because I think I have earned the right to brag about my performance, because there is always room for improvement (although I was pretty excited about that 29 minute 5K that one time). It’s not because I need anyone to make a big deal about how I ran a few miles or did some cross-training at Planet Fitness. It’s because I appreciate the accountability that comes with letting someone in on your efforts.
Accountability, with a touch of competition. It’s all the same to me. There’s a reason nearly every fitness app has some kind of online community attached. There’s a reason a local run club another friend of mine is part of shows up every Monday night for a run, even when it’s pouring rain. There’s a reason my best friend’s now-husband Dave caved and started running three years ago, even though he was, in his own words, “a content fat person, smoking, eating McDonald’s, Xbox, all the good stuff”: he got a call from a friend who had decided to start a running group, and after trying to ignore the peer pressure he finally gave in and bought some running shoes.
When I asked Dave how the group started–it’s called Running With Amigos–he told me his friend G wanted to start a running club, and when he came to Dave with the idea he had already started a Facebook page and an Instagram account for the still nonexistent group. When the day of the inaugural run rolled around, three people showed up: G, his brother, and a very reluctant Dave. Three years later, the group has fluctuated in size and remains on the small side–but they still run. They sign up for races together. They compete in tough mudders and triathlons. They have cool t-shirts. And G still posts meet-up schedules, post-run pics, and updates on the group’s FB page. “It’s crazy how posting on Facebook can inspire people,” Dave told me. “That’s how we got all our runners. Just Facebook friends who were like ‘hey man, can I come?’”
I started running in August of 2012 using the Couch-to-5K app. I was working in a school, and a number of my colleagues had started running in the afternoons. They started with a loop around our campus and the adjoining middle school, and eventually they began meeting for runs at my undergraduate alma mater down the road, known for it’s gorgeous brick walkways, 200 year-old oak trees, and stunning landscaping. I had attempted maybe two runs in the time between my high school track days and that summer, and I had hated every second of it both times, but I couldn’t shake the pull to be part of this group. So I downloaded the app and got my first pair of Brooks, and I never looked back.
Running quickly became a sacred experience for me. Not only did it make me more aware of my body’s physical powers and capabilities than I’d ever been, it also lent itself to prayer and reflection. There is something soothing about cadence–the pattern of your own steps moving you forward, or the shared act of falling into step with a friend or two. Even when it is so hard–and it often is–there is an inexplicable joy, a sense of accomplishment, when you reach your endpoint, look at the little GPS map that shows how much ground you covered, check your splits and average pace and see how much you’ve improved. Inexplicable, unless you share with with someone else who gets it.
My first official run with the work girls was hard. I’d been struggling with some calf issues, and I was slow. Embarrassingly slow. The natural leader of the group, Kelli, who had few half marathons under her belt, could have left us all in her dust, but she didn’t. She would run at her normal pace for a few minutes, and then she would drop back and run with me for a bit, and then go ahead to run with someone else, and then she’d speed back to the front. Back and forth she went for the entire run, a little over three miles, and when we were close to the endpoint she got behind the last runner, which was probably me, and pushed us all to finish hard, so we could all complete the run together. She got it–both the thrill of the finish, and the camaraderie it fostered. I don’t work with any of those girls anymore, but when I post the occasional run these days, they are the first to like and comment. It feels good to see their names pop up in my feed. It reminds me of what G knew when he started Running With Amigos: having a support system makes everything better.
A few weeks ago I was on the treadmill at the gym when I got a notification from my Apple watch that I’d never seen before. “Share your workouts with Pammy,” it said. My friend Pam had started training for a 10K a few months before, and she was killing it. In my five years of running I’d never come close to running that distance, and I panicked. NO, I thought, I don’t want her to see my pathetic runs! And then I clicked OKAY, because I knew there was value in letting someone in on my efforts. I got very deliberate about making sure I logged something at least four days a week. A few weeks later I invited another friend–an original member of the work group–to share her workouts with me on Apple Health. “No,” she said, “I don’t want you to see how lazy I am!”–and then she clicked OKAY, because she knows, too. We encourage each other. We challenge each other. And sure, sometimes we roll our eyes or give each other a hard time–but that’s part of it too, the gentle jab of competition that pushes us forward.
It is a lot like life: it’s super hard, mostly, and having a tribe, a team, a support system is paramount to our survival. There are mom groups and divorce groups and grief groups. There are Facebook pages for people who make their own beer, or like the same books, or enjoy talking about politics. It doesn’t matter what the focus is; what matters is the connection. We need it. I’d go so far as to say we require it. We are empowered by hearing the words “me, too” and “yeah, I get it,” and “I totally understand.” In a Guardian column a month before her death, Carrie Fisher talks about going to AA meetings and hating them at first. “But then someone said, ‘You don’t have to like these meetings, you just have to go, go until you like them.’ That took me by surprise. I didn’t have to like [them]?…My comfort wasn’t the most important thing–my getting through to the other side of difficult feelings was.” She writes that she eventually embraced AA, and found “relief and humor” in being with people who understood her particular struggle. I thought about this a few weeks ago when, after a nearly 4-week forced running hiatus due to travel, sickness, and life’s demands in general, I found myself wishing death would come for me at the end of the first mile of a three mile run–or at the very least, that I could just stop and walk back to my car and drive home. But I didn’t. I kept running. Because before I started I had texted my friend. My husband had seen me leave the house that morning with my workout bag. I was already there, in the middle of it, and if I stopped now I’d feel compelled to tell them the truth when they asked how it had gone–because I knew they would ask. They always do. And I wanted the truth to be that even though it was hard, I had finished. I had kept going.
I don’t mean to make running sound miserable, but sometimes running is miserable. It is, as I said, very like life in that way. There are very good runs, and there are very bad runs, runs that make you wonder what you are thinking. Sometimes you will find yourself feeling like a beginner limping through a mile that you crushed last week, and sometimes you will finish a run and feel like you have been imbued with superhuman powers. Likewise, there are very good days, and there are very bad days, days when you lose every battle to your kids or your job or your illness or your circumstances. There are days when everything falls into place, and days when everything falls apart, and there are lots of ordinary days in between. Regardless, you will want to tell someone about it, and when you do, you will know that you can keep going. That you will all keep going together. So find your people, and tell them everything. Vent. Rant. Share your stories. Post those run stats and gym pictures, share your negative splits, or lament about the humidity. Trust me, there’s a group for you–on Facebook or Instagram, at church or on the trails, next door or 1000 miles away. Find them, and run your race.