First-Time Finisher: Group Runs Are for Angry Birds

Annie hates running in groups—but loves the competition

This is Annie's idea of Zen.

For eight years during high school and college, I ran on a team. Year after year, season after season, I laced up with pods of five or six other girls and hit the streets, jogging two abreast on sidewalks, and single-file on the side of the road. I was, at one time or another, a designated reflective vest-wearer during late winter workouts, a pace-keeper on tempo runs, and a happy participant in mind-bending, high-brow games like “Would You Rather…?” or “Marry, Kill, Boff.”

I’ll spare you the sentiment, but as any current or former athlete knows, the time you spend with a team is formative. It makes you stronger and faster, forces you to navigate group dynamics, teaches you about goals, about work ethic, and about (gulp) failure. Memories, life lessons, BFFs—you get the drift.

It’s only after a lot of consideration for all these factors (and a safe distance of two years since getting hugs and flowers from teammates at graduation), that I can admit to myself and the public that I have zero desire to run with a group. Ever. Again.

Yes, yes, I know there are plenty of friendly groups out there, at plenty of skill levels, whose members motivate one another and have fun while doing it. Just like a school team, but without drama, or the need to spend 10 hours on a rural soccer field every Saturday.

I’m not sure what the missing ingredient is for me, but any running group I’ve tried since college has been truly bizarre. I seem to always find myself running next to some endorphin-crazed man wearing neon-reflective short shorts, sweat bands on every limb, and a slinky running shirt that treats chest hair exposure like a competition. He can’t wait to compare 5K times (a little like asking a lady her weight, if you ask me), and he dives into that last quarter-mile puffing out his lungs and chest hair and leaving his comrades in the dust, like an Angry Bird in sneakers.

Then, of course, there’s the post-running boozing. The sweaty co-mingling that feels more like a joggers’ singles mixer than team bonding.

I don’t think of myself as an anti-social person, and (lest I scare off potential running buddies) I still love having occasional catch-up jogs with girlfriends. But I’m increasingly protective of running as very valuable alone time. I don’t really want to mix running and socializing. It’s one of the few times during the day where I’m blissfully out of contact, unobliged to make conversation or work through “issues.” I do it on my time, at my pace, for as long as I want. To pollute that precious hour by having to compare notes on the most recent Dancing with The Stars episode with a total stranger would negate the whole effect.

Plus, I’ve gotten insensibly attached to my training plan. I don’t like the idea that some elected group leader will dictate how far I’m going, or how fast. Like somehow that run will throw off an entire week of training. Am I being type A and neurotic? Of course. That’s how I ended up signing up for a marathon in the first place.

Over the past couple weeks, though, I’ve started this odd exercise wherein I try to actually run faster than a gentle schlog. Feeling my legs come to a stiff halt after one unremarkable mile repeat is one of the few times when I’ve missed running in a pack. Nothing will keep you on task quite as much as a little petty competition amongst friends; without that extra kick in the shorts, I’m only as good as my own willpower.

Turns out, though, that competition needn’t be found on

Last Friday, I had measured out a short tempo run for myself on Kelly Drive. My watch was ticking away, but I didn’t have a particular goal in mind other than to finish the run breathing harder than usual. Over time, of course, I began to slack; my mind wandered, and I found myself staring at the ground, debating where to get coffee that morning.

Then, seemingly out of the Schuylkill, someone whizzed right past me. An Angry Bird. Short shorts, chest hair, puffing. He went by just close enough to my shoulder for me to see what he was getting at: “Pardon me, miss, I have some running to do this morning.”

Oh, absolutely not, I thought to myself, simmering. It was, needless to say, a kick in the shorts.

I stayed close by him for a few paces, before pulling up next to him, and then past him, before my last mile. To and fro we went, every couple of minutes, both of us getting visibly angrier and faster. At one point, I almost clipped his ankle.

Part of me wanted to chase him all the way down the river, just to see who would break first. Before I knew it though, I’d crossed my self-made finish line in front of Lloyd Hall, and veered to the side of the path. He forged onward, not even breaking pace or looking at me. I’m sure he was pleased as punch.

I’m not worried, though—I have a feeling I’ll get him, next time. Or some other ad hoc running partner. I’ll certainly be looking for one.

Research editor Annie Monjar blogs about her training for the Philadelphia Marathon each week here on Be Well Philly. Want to catch up on the series? Here are her earlier posts, starting from the beginning:
Taking the Marathon Dive
• Running a Marathon is @#^%*! Expensive
• The Great iPod Debate
• Knowing When to Take a Day Off
• A Good Trail Is Hard to Find
Is Yoga Worth It for Runners?