The Companionship of the Not So Long Distance Runner

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Simon Hardy discusses the interesting effects running has on conversations.

To talk, or not to talk while running? That is the question…

It is a pleasant enough dilemma to have. Obviously, we have an important duty to chat to new Serpie members on a club run and make them feel at home.  And with the size of the Serpentine membership it’s not unusual to be running alongside somebody new. On occasion, you can find yourself — once the preliminaries are out of the way — having a surprisingly in depth and personal conversation with a complete stranger — and then never see them again. An experience which has become known as “a Serpie one night stand”. An elderly member of the club, who now finds himself running alone because of his sedate pace, told me that chatting while running is one of the things he misses most.

I have learnt some interesting things during these Serpie run conversations: how to bake a sour dough loaf, the intricacies of milk production, how to cope with bereavement and how to ship nuclear waste from one continent to the next — you never know when that last example might come in useful.  The club — particularly being in the heart of London — attracts some extraordinary people doing some extraordinary things. The fact that at least two Serpies were recognised in the New Year’s Honours list is testament to that.

For many runners, how talkative they are often depends on the mood they are in at the time. You only need to volunteer at the Seymour turnstiles on a Wednesday night to witness the very different moods in which people arrive for the club run.  Most are all smiles, looking forward to their training, some arrive late and slightly hassled, while others are still clearly distracted by their working day.

A fellow Serpie told me that if she has had a particularly turbulent day at work, she will not be able to face a conversation with anyone for at least a mile.  On occasion, the feeling lasts for the duration of the run.  But once her run has been completed, she is in the right head space to interact with fellow Serpies — having left the pre-occupations of the day somewhere in the fading twilight of the Royal Parks.

Another friend told me she likes running alone — and if she is going to push herself on the run then talking would not be an option anyway. Others find talking helps with the run itself and acts as a welcome distraction from that niggling old injury or the realisation that one should have brought gloves.

Like walking, the act of running often produces a different kind of conversation to one where the participants are facing each other. There is no eye contact or body language to worry about and you are both free to let the conversation drift where it will.

Fellow Serpie Eddie Brocklesby (newly awarded a British Empire Medal), writes movingly in her book Irongran about how running helped her deal with her husband’s death from cancer.  She describes how crying silently when out with her running friends was the best therapy.

“So, that was the end of counselling and the beginning of more running. Running in a small group, you could distance yourself, tears flowing, or let someone else do the talking particularly when going up hills.“*

The success and duration of the conversation sometimes comes down to a simple question of fitness.  I am sure I am not alone in learning early on in my running life, the technique of sustaining a conversation with the minimum amount of effort.  The dialogue usually starts pretty evenly. But if the running pace is a tad brisker than one bargained for, the balance shifts.

In those circumstances it is prudent to find a subject on which your running companion is happy to wax lyrical – and keep it there.  Then, all that should be needed is the odd word with a question mark at the end: “Really?, how come?” or “That’s extraordinary” and with that you have tossed the verbal ball back in your partner’s court and you can concentrate on getting up that hill without uttering a word.

Sometimes, conversations have a natural life span. A regular runner of the Three Parks has observed that however talkative the group may be, a change tends to take place just past the Albert Hall. After crossing Exhibition Road into south Carriage Drive where the route gets darker, a natural silence descends on the group and this stretch of the run is often completed in a contented silence.

For me, I like running with a group — but not necessarily being part of the conversation. There is something particularly satisfying about this: the experience of running with people — often friends — but in silence. Exercising in company, but silently, can be strangely meditative. I have a friend who meditates but chooses to do so once a week in the company of others. They meditate individually but gain from doing so with others — a shared endeavour — that enriches the experience and makes it more than the sum of its parts.

And so too with running. I often find these silent runs much more memorable than those dominated by chat for its own sake. Running with someone in silence, just the sound of the park and our own exertion but sharing a common goal, can be as profound and, in its way intimate, as a conversation.

So next time you find yourself setting off with someone less talkative than you would like, they might be enjoying the run more than you think.

*Irongran: How keeping fit taught me that growing older needn’t mean slowing down. By Edwina Brocklesby.

Simon Hardy has been running with Serpentine since 2013 and works as a journalist in London.

Grace Mackintosh Sim did the illustration for this article. Go and have a look round her website (link below).