The loneliness of the 23-year-old distance runner

It’s no secret that distance runners are of a different breed, on several levels. We understand that there is fun in seeing the sunrise, in the final miles of a long run, in downing water at any given point in the day. Most runners have supporting friends and family members who understand a runner’s lifestyle and often adapt to it themselves, particularly if they also are runners. What is seldom talked about, however, is the conflicting motives and decisions of a relatively young, but not high-school/college young, long distance runner. This is what I would like to call, the loneliness of the 23-year-old distance runner. I’ll explain.

It’s 1:30 in the morning on a Friday night. You are still at the bar, surrounded by your friends. All of whom do not have to run fifteen miles in the morning as you do, but I’ll get to that later. The bar announces last call, your friends decide to go back to one of their houses since there is “free” beer in the fridge there. Now, this may be a night with no shenanigans or craziness (read: no one breaks anything, no one gets yelled at). You may be in the middle of a good conversation with a few people, or you may have just met a new group of friends. There may also be food back at the house, and let’s face it – you didn’t have enough dinner because you worked late and headed straight to meet your friends at 10pm, and, um, it’s food – you always want food. So, you get your coat and parade down the street to the house. You have another beer once you’re there because everyone does, you’re thirsty, and why not. 2:30 approaches. Everyone is still having fun and you don’t feel like ditching the scene yet, so you stick around. You pour a glass of water since you don’t want to be dehydrated on your long run. Then it starts to creep in: the “I’m alone” feeling. You start to wiggle your calves around, making sure they feel okay since they were tight yesterday. You worry that the heels you’re wearing are giving you a black toenail, and try to not make it any worse by sitting down. If it’s this late and you’re still “out” (not chilling at a house) – maybe dancing – it’s even worse. You start to wonder why everyone else is having fun and you would rather be asleep: didn’t you decide to come out? Didn’t you want to dance? Didn’t you want to drink? Didn’t you want to see your friends? Why do you want to call it quits on the night out and have pizza? Will you ever find a balance? Why am I here? I shouldn’t have come. The story ends with you waking up at whatever time you need to, going for the run, and feeling just fine. Why? Because you’re 23, that’s why, and you can handle it all. You somehow hydrated and ate enough between chats and bars and everything and it worked out fine.

So there you have it: that is what has been going through my mind on a typical weekend night.

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It sounds stupid to say that balancing marathon training and 23-year-old life is hard, because I obviously don’t have to go out. Here’s the catch though. Most of my good friends are not runners. I don’t care if they don’t understand; they are my friends and I’m going to go out with them and have fun. I didn’t make socializing a priority in college; I hardly feel like I made lifelong-lasting friends there, and that is my fault. I feel like I’m getting a big second chance, and I’m living it to the fullest. Being in limbo complicates the issue more, because brings into play money: keeping up with friends who have more money (ahem, everyone) is also difficult, especially when it comes to budgeting food. Another reason I go back again and again, experiencing the conflict each weekend is, not only am I 23, I’m 23 and single. If I’m spending a night in, or just chilling out and going home early, I’m doing it alone. That just seems to be the way things are: if you’re single, you go out and socialize. I have no problem with this (I tried being an introvert once…it lasted a few hours).

This is a strange, strange time in my life. There’s no doubt that since I turned 23 in the fall, my lifestyle choices have conflicted with one another more than ever. On one end, there are the bloggers I admire, with families or boyfriends, who write about all the fun workouts they do and are in bed by 9, who maybe have a drink once every couple weeks. On the other hand, there are the friends who maybe go to the gym sometimes (but seem fit, since, you know, they are 23), work 9-5, and think 2 AM is a decent time to crack open a 6-pack and continue the party. The issue lies in the fact that I want to be both. I’m doing a pretty good job, but I think I have to work on some things. 3 AM is becoming the new 2 AM: problem #1. I do think that if I had a like-minded significant other currently, things would be different because I would be closer to a similar lifestyle on a more regular basis.

I distinctly remember the day I learned this wasn't true, and it ruined everything. EVERYTHING....

I distinctly remember the day I learned this wasn’t true, and it ruined everything. EVERYTHING….

I do think I am luckier than most people, to have running in my life. On my long run Saturday, sandwiched between two nights similar to what I previously described, I was cresting a [new, awesome, top-of-the-world-view] hill when I really started thinking about this. How great was it, to be able to live all aspects of life to the fullest? I’m living and learning…not all decisions are good decisions. The life of a 23-year-old distance runner trying to make up for a sub-par social college experience isn’t always easy, but I wouldn’t trade any part of it for the world.

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6 thoughts on “The loneliness of the 23-year-old distance runner

  1. Great post. It’s all about balance. I can imagine it is not easy at all, but then any lifestyle/activity that is different than what most do is difficult to balance in.
    I’m older than you and I don’t party much with friends anymore, but then I have 2 small kids, a husband, and a full time job, so fitting in running time is not always easy either.
    In the end your friends, the good ones at least, will stick even though you can’t go out with them every Friday, keep doing what you love.

  2. Great post! I struggled with this for the longest time too. I’d say it went from 21 to 25 for me. Then it was like, one day, all of my friends got tired of staying up till 2am. We still drink a TON, don’t get me wrong, but I’d say that eventually 12am is the new 2am, which is much easier to handle. If it helps at all, I was totally in your boat and it will definitely get better!

  3. This is a really refreshing post, my friend. I think no matter what kind of situation you’re in, there’s still a certain amount of loneliness in training. I made the conscious decision to make training a priority when I ran my first marathon in 2011. It was hard, and yeah, some of my friends felt like I was just avoiding them. I try to shift focus after a goal race and spend 4-8 weeks doing all of the things I wish I could have done during training (including many, many late nights and way too many beeeeerz). You’re right–all about balance. Sounds like you’re already getting the hang of it

  4. Oh geez, I totally feel this pain and I’m on my way to being 30 and in a relationship! Boston’s scene seems to embrace old and young. At 30, I don’t hang out after I leave the bar anymore, but I understand the frustration of wanting to run and wanting to be social. Its a constant battle for me because if I’m drinking late night, I most likely am eating late night…and I don’t have the metabolism of a 23-year old. Sometimes, I just have to tell myself to relax and enjoy what lies before me.

  5. I totally feel you on this! It wasn’t until I got so injured a couple years ago that I couldn’t run down my block let alone 20 miles that I saw the other side. I drank as much as I wanted, stayed out until the bars closed at 4am. (Thank you, NYC.) It was a little bit of a different world, and eventually when you lose the 23 year old metabolism, laying in bed the next day reminds of why you shouldn’t do that. 🙂 It’s hard to find a balance, but it’s there somewhere…whether you head home early (I still hold that nothing good happens after 2am…) or run a little later in the day. (I’m not a morning person and why people always start long runs at 7 or 8am boggles my mind. I run alone a lot…) Or meet new runner friends, the internet is great for that. Realizing that not everything is always perfect and that life is a give and take certainly helps.

    The single thing is just an ongoing battle…single people lament sitting at home on the couch alone, people in relationships lament that they never get the couch to themselves. (Although the worst is when people in relationships say, “Live it up! Being single is fun!” I hate all of them when they say that.) On the bright side, being single means that you don’t have to include anyone else in your plans, so you can go home when you want (midnight versus 2am) and get out and run when you want, so that’s nice. (On the other hand, a built in runner buddy/boyfriend is also nice, but nevermind that.) The grass always seems greener, but trying to see the bright side of a situation makes your side a little better. So does an all-out post-marathon celebration…beer for everyone!

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