How to Handle the Unplanned, Unwanted, or Undesirable Mid-Run Companion

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There aren’t many things that distance runners consider awkward. (I mean, we’re talking about people who have no trouble asking acquaintances of less than five minutes to “stand guard” while they use the nearest tree as a porta-loo en plein air.) But nothing throws us for a loop more than the dreaded and strangely unavoidable same-pace guy. There you are running along, minding your own business, dreaming what it would be like to run a 2:30 marathon and sport a single-digit bib number, when all of a sudden you realize… you’re not alone.

Alas, as it turns out, someone else in the world runs your pace. Exactly. And somehow he found you. Ironic, isn’t it? And yet, not all same-pace situations are created equal. Some are horrendous. (Drafting, anyone?) Others are surprisingly pleasant. And yes, there are even those few that are life-saving (or, at least, race-saving).

With a little preparedness and a good pair of running shoes, you can survive any same-pace situation with grace and aplomb. (Except for drafting. Aplomb is overrated when it comes to drafting.)


The “Same-Pace Guy” Survival Guide


Situation: You find yourself running stride for stride with a total stranger—and you want to ditch him, pronto.

Solution: He breathes weird. He’s not making an effort to break the pace marriage. He keeps asking questions. (“Yes, I’ll gladly share my home address and phone number with you, Mr. Person I Just Met On The Street!”) Whatever the case, you need to lose this guy. Only problem is… you’re both running the same pace. In the same direction.

  • Stop and retie your shoe. The original dump-a-runner stunt, this classic move has been utilized by mileage junkies since Pheidippides strapped on his first pair of sandals. Sure, it might be a little obvious, but it works. After you pause long enough to give your ex-partner an insurmountable lead, resume running in the solace of solitude.
  • Call a water or GU break. This is really just a variation of the shoe-tie trick, but it offers a few physiological perks as well, especially during long runs. Suddenly stopping just to take a swig of water may be a bit obvious, but downing a GU during the lacuna adds a touch of diplomatic suavity to the breakup. Plus, a short breather and a little hydration never hurt the body.
  • Change your route. This is an especially solid choice when stopping is less than ideal (such as during a tempo run). Don’t be afraid to call a little play action. You’re a simple left turn away from freedom. And if turning isn’t an option…
  • Commit to a pass… and commit to a new pace. Commit is the operative word here. The biggest and most cringeworthy faux pas a runner can make is blowing by a same-pace runner only to slow up a few yards down the road… and subsequently be rejoined by Mr. Same Pace. (Because, yep, there’s a good chance he’s going to try to keep up.) Once you’ve decided that you’re going to deal with your unwanted buddy by leaving him in your dust, realize that you’ve also just committed to an impromptu tempo, fartlek, or progression run from that point on. Never forget the golden rule of passing: If you’re going to pass somebody, pass like you mean it—and never, ever look back.

Situation: You find yourself running stride for stride with a total stranger—but the conversation is somewhat pleasant.

Solution: Ah, the ever-surprising “Hey! You’re not annoying!” impromptu running buddy. You made awkward eye contact and exchanged a few words only to discover you’re actually enjoying the company of your new fleet-footed acquaintance. Not once have you felt the need to “tie your shoe.” In fact, eight miles into a fourteen-mile run, you appreciate the distraction. But the question remains: Are you annoying your impromptu buddy? This situation takes some discernment and tact, but a with a little effort, you can avoid being that guy. (The following procedure works for groups, too.)

  • Engage in a few minutes of small talk to ease awkwardness. Keep it running related and—especially if you’re a guy and your impromptu acquaintance is female—stay away from asking personal questions such as where she lives, where she likes to run, whether she runs with groups or alone, etc. (No one likes a creeper.) Open, friendly conversation goes a long way in removing the “Are you trying to race me?” tension of parallel running. 
  • Always give the person an out just in case he/she doesn’t want to run with you (and never take it personally if he/she doesn’t). After a few minutes, I usually say something like, “Well, go ahead and take off whenever you want. I don’t want to mess up your run. I won’t be going any faster than this today.” In effect, you’ve given your new acquaintance an escape clause that not only frees him to stop talking to you, but also lets him know that if he wants to run alone, he can (with very little effort). You won’t try to catch him. You may even stop to tie your shoe. Because you get it. And he’ll appreciate it—even if he doesn’t bolt.

Situation: Someone is drafting behind you.

Solution: You sense something. Just over your right shoulder. Someone breathing. A shadow. A presence. You take a quick glance. Ah ha! Just as you suspected. That guy with the sweatband—the guy who fell in behind you at that last cross path—is actually drafting off you. In the words of “Seth and Amy” from Saturday Night Live, “Really. Really? Really?” Unfortunately, there are only a couple of non-confrontational options to rid yourself of this nuisance. Fortunately, they’re effective.

  • “We can do this the easy way, or we can do this the hard way.” Okay, unless you have a penchant for fisticuffs, don’t say that. But you can throw a couple of “I’m on to you” looks in his direction. Glancing over your shoulder once or twice or thrice—sans smile—is the best way to let him know that you’re not exactly thrilled by his antics. If he has any decency, he’ll back off or take another route. But if he doesn’t…
  • Revert to the shoe tie. Yeah, I know. It’s not fair that you have to change up your run because Draft-O-Master can’t run his own pace. But suddenly coming to a halt calls his bluff and forces him to keep running without you. Because let’s face it, it would be super creepy if he stopped with you. (And if he does, you may want to call the cops.)

Situation: Someone is drafting behind you… in a race.

Solution: Yeah, this one is a bit tougher. Stopping is not an option, nor (in most cases) is changing your pace. Even worse, it never fails that the person who drafts behind you in a race happens to be the most irritating wheezer on the face of the planet. Soul-crushingly irritating. So if you can’t stop and you can’t change your pace, what do you do?

  • Toss a couple of unhappy glances over your shoulder. The good news is it’s super easy to look unhappy when you’re racing. (At least, it is for me.) Most people aren’t smiling at race pace. A few turns of your head should send an effective message that you know what he’s up to and that you’re not at all thrilled about it. He may get the message. He may not. Or, since he’s racing, he may not care. In that case…
  • Use other participants to your advantage. Don’t do anything to sabotage your own race, but don’t be afraid to bob and weave just a little bit. He’ll have to make quite an effort to keep drafting off you if you play a little runner’s chess and barricade yourself with other participants. At the very least, you can reenact the torpedo scene from Hunt for the Red October and try to get him to draft off someone else. (Hey, when it comes to racing, it’s every man for himself.)
  • Cross your fingers and, if worst comes to worst, use him as motivation. Very rarely will two people stay together for more than a few miles. (Granted, that’s the duration of a 5K.) But in longer races, or in races in which runners are fairly spread out, stubborn drafters may be impossible to shake. If such is the unfortunate case, hope that he can’t keep up. If he’s still on your tail going into the final stretch, make it your new goal to beat him. Don’t let him outkick you. Suck it up and cross the line before him. Do it for yourself. Do it for the rest of us.
  • Wear a shirt that has a warning on the back: “DON’T DRAFT. I SPIT.” I’ve never actually done this, but it just struck me as a good idea.

Situation: You’re racing, and you can’t help but notice that the person next to you is running beautiful mile splits right at your goal pace.

Solution: While the Same-Pace Guy may be awkward during your daily miles, he can be your best friend come race day. Holding pace for the duration of your goal race is stressful. Adrenaline can tempt you to bolt from the gates too quickly. Later on, fatigue may make the pace seem impossible to hold. And in those long mid-race miles, monotony may cause you to lose focus and drift several seconds on either side of your ideal mile splits. Discovering an impromptu mid-race companion not only eases mental fatigue, provides motivation, and offers up moments of distraction, but it is quite often a win-win situation for both parties. Just remember:

  • Be mindful of your new running buddy’s demeanor and respect her boundaries. While most runners understand and appreciate the mutual benefits of racing tandem, every person is different. Some like to talk. Some don’t. Some may acknowledge your presence. Others will remain willfully oblivious. And everybody needs elbow room. Assess the situation and be courteous and respectful. And whatever you do, don’t put yourself in a drafting position. Stay parallel. Pull ahead. Fall way back. But don’t tuck in right behind the person. Because then you’re that guy, and nobody likes that guy.
  • Enjoy the company, but be responsible for your own race. So the person chalked up perfect miles splits for three miles. Don’t abandon your watch. Ultimately, this is your race, and you’re responsible for how you run it. If your new buddy slows down, then be grateful for the miles you shared and leave him behind. If your new buddy speeds up, wish him well and let him go. It’s your race. Run it at your pace and no one else’s.
  • When it’s obvious that you’re parting ways for good, compliment your new friend’s pacing abilities and wish her good luck. This rule applies primarily if you’ve run a significant way with your impromptu partner. If she pulls ahead of you, yell out a simple encouragement such as, “Great pace! Keep it up!” If you pull ahead and it’s obvious she’s not going to keep up, a quick “Great pace! Have a good race!” is all you need. It’s polite and, frankly, just good manners. We’re all runners, after all, and we’re in this thing together.
  • When you see each other at the finish line, don’t be afraid to hug it out or offer a high five. Yep. You were in the trenches together. You encouraged each other. You pushed each other on. Congratulate one another and acknowledge the accomplishment of a race well run. After all, the finish line was made for celebrations.

 Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious RunnerHer second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Storywill be released in 2014.