(Originally wrote this back in August of 2009 for Running Hoosier magazine, which unfortunately has since folded. Everyone in the world is on Twitter now – but not everyone is a runner. Yet.)
I have been running for most of my life, and yet I’m a novice runner.
My first memory of myself as a runner is from the local 4th of July kids’ races at our small town in Massachusetts. I was about five and all I can remember is falling. Who knows what really happened, but when I tell that story today, I make it sound as if I was trampled like a fan at a Who concert. In reality, I think I just got muddy and cried. In any case, my early running career was off to a rocky start.
Several years later, after the psychological scars had healed, I once again ventured out to the local 4th of July races to run my first 5K. Calling it a “run,” however, would be inaccurate, as I walked for a large portion of the race. I believe I finished last. After that, I stopped running for its own sake and stuck to running as a means to an end.
I played sports in high school, and running was something I did because the coach made me. Nothing changed in college: running was still a punishment meted out by authority figures. After I graduated, I ran to lose all the weight I gained from eating too much pizza during the previous four years. Later in life, I ran to get back in shape after I had my kids. Sometimes I ran to deal with stress. Sometimes I ran to get away from things. And sometimes I ran simply because bathing suit season was coming.
But I never ran just to run. It wasn’t until I finally had a clear mind, and a clear schedule, that I was truly able to run for fun. Still, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I just went to my local running store, bought some nice shoes, laced up and went. At its very core, running is as simple as that. However, being a runner involves a lot more. I just didn’t know it at the time.
Then I got on Twitter. For the uninitiated, Twitter is a social networking site that allows you to “follow,” or see the posts of, people you may or may not know. It is a bit like walking into a very large cocktail party where there are thousands of individual conversations taking place. By “following” people you can eavesdrop on their conversations. It differs from other social networking sites like Facebook because you do not need to already have a relationship with someone in order to receive his or her updates. Rather, you just click “follow” for anyone you find interesting, including complete strangers and celebrities. It’s a bit like socially acceptable stalking.
So how, you might you ask, did a site like Twitter help make me a better runner? Well, quite simply, I followed the runners.
I’m not even sure which runners I found first. I merely searched for “running,” identified a few people and began following them. Then I saw who they were “talking to” and followed those people as well. The next thing I know, I was following dozens and dozens of runners, some casual runners, some marathoners and ultramarathoners, and a bunch in between.
I was amazed at what these people were communicating about. There were debates about training programs, nutrition, and recovery periods. There was talk about split times, Marys, Half Marys, heel strikers and mid-foot strikers. There was discussion about speed work, track repeats, intervals and Fartleks. Suddenly I was hearing all kinds of lingo I knew nothing about. Often these runners would post links to articles and blogs. I read them all. A few were over my head, but most of them were informative and eye-opening. Some of these were articles I might have stumbled upon on my own, but most were items I never would have been able to find out there in cyberspace by myself.
In addition to links, people also shared their personal experiences, from the big decisions about marathon training programs to more mundane concerns. Do you run with a hydration belt? What sports/recovery drink do you use? What do you eat to prepare for a long run? What is your favorite music to listen to while working out? Running skirts: cute or goofy? All of these opinions were being shared openly and honestly.
However, even more importantly than all of the information and resources, Twitter kept me motivated. Seeing others post their daily runs was a great reminder to stick to my own running schedule. Twitter helped me get my butt out the door on the mornings I wanted to stay in bed. “I really don’t feel like running today,” I would whine on Twitter. Then out of the Twitterverse would come many messages of encouragement in reply: “Just go, you’ll feel better when you are done.” After that, of course, I had to run. I was being held accountable by dozens of people.
Twitter enabled me to become part of a community of runners, something I simply didn’t have before. I had some “real-life” friends who are runners, but most were casual runners. My local running store had a runners group, but the run times weren’t convenient for me. Twitter allowed me to run when it worked for my schedule and still share my experiences with others. Now, when I have suffered through a challenging run, I know I can turn to Twitter for positive reinforcement and encouragement. If I have questions, I know I can find answers. If I have problems, there are people who understand.
It may only be a virtual community, but it’s a genuine community. On Twitter, we share stories of getting lost while running, being chased by barking dogs, getting scared by cars coming just a little too close. We tell each other about the funny, strange, frightening and inspiring things we see on our runs. We commiserate about not hydrating enough or hydrating too much and having to quickly find a port-o-potty en route.
I seem to always get chased by very small but very persistent dogs, and the experience makes for good Twitter-material. Sure enough, there are others out there who have been tormented by micro-dogs as well. We can laugh about it together. What’s more, we can share solutions. Someone suggested running with dog treats to toss towards a chasing dog, hopefully serving as a distraction. Hey, if it works for the UPS guy, it might work for me. While it is an obvious trick, I don’t think I would have come up with it on my own. Thanks Twitter.
Twitter has also helped me discover a range of other online tools to help make me a better runner. These sites help me organize my training, find appropriate races, and stay motivated. The links I have found thanks to Twitter have given me a wealth of information that I could not have mined on my own in my day-to-day “real” life.
Twitter connects me with the running community, a vital component I need to help make me a better runner. I still consider myself a novice runner, but now I’m lucky enough to have hundreds of mentors, even if I’ve never even met them in person.