Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Best Friends I've Never Met?

Pre-Scriptum: This post, which was a long time in the writing, was finalised at around 30,000ft over the Atlantic as I made my way towards Atlanta, GA for a week’s worth of meetings and discussions around Service Lifecycle Management. I then checked it one last time in my hotel room a few days later. If you can’t run at ten miles, you might as well write about it.
Oh, and a lot of the work was done while listening to Little Richard’s “Very Best Of”. I was scrolling through for the Manic Street Preachers but stopped one early. After all, the guy changed the course of popular music and popular music, made white folk dance like no whitey ever had previously. Worth a listen at any altitude. And gotta love the attitude.
Right, let’s do this!

I have long intended to write a piece on the relationships I have developed with fellow runners through Social Media. People whom I’ve never met, with one solitary exception. People with whom, nevertheless, when it comes to running I empathise and sympathise, in a reciprocal and reciprocated way, far more than with many people whom I’ve known for decades.

So – who are these people? Are they friends? Are they followers? Are they connections? Are they mere IDs, names? And, most importantly, are they nutters? Let’s find out!

Firstly, I want to underline some of running’s characteristics. I wish to do this from the perspective of someone who’s tried his hand and feet at many sports. Forget long jumping, shot putting and all that ‘official’ decathlon stuff: if decathlon consisted of football, tennis, golf, swimming, cycling, running, cricket, volleyball, basketball and table-tennis, I wouldn’t do too badly. I wouldn’t do great at any of them, but on a good day I’d get by in most! As a result of which, and because I’m an overthinker, I have an appreciation of what is required to succeed in many sports, of the differences between the minds of sportspeople who do well and badly in any of those.

Let’s look at football (the one you play with your feet) and tennis, the two sports that account for the majority of the time I’ve spent on pitches, courses, courts and pools around the world. They are very different, not least in their essential characteristic of team and individual sport respectively. Yet they share some defining characteristics, too. Try to describe a football match or a tennis match and you will find yourself picking out acts of brilliance or disappointment that marked them, from a blinding save to a cute lob. You will probably highlights swings in who held the upper-hand, smart tactical thinking, gamesmanship, debatable decisions… just listing such headers brings back to mind penalty saves, lobs, volleys, comebacks and that daylight robbery by Pete Lench and Richard Clarke in the Portishead Men’s Doubles 2006 Semifinal, to name but a few. They are hardcoded into my visual and emotional memories. Now, when it comes to running…

…sure, I remember occasional sections of races, not least because I’ve only run three to date. I remember the final 200m of the Sheffield TenTenTen, the gruelling final mile of the Bristol Half Marathon before I finally saw the finishing line and the Wyvern Christmas Cracker from 2012, no problem. But they don’t stir the same levels of emotion as other snippets of other sports. They are all part of a bigger picture, of an overall race. And, during those races, my goal wasn’t to shine with moments of individual brilliance as with previous sports. I was aiming for boredom, for monotony: for the ability to run 13mi at a steady, constant pace, with no major accelerations or decelerations. I might have been aiming for a time or for a distance, but time and my own limitations would have been my sole adversaries: even when surrounded by thousands of others, those races are purely against myself, and my time is unlikely to be defined by any single step or stretch. It all comes together when you cross the finishing line, or indeed when you walk back through the door from a training run. Until then, there is little room for short-lived brilliance. Which is not to say there is little room for error: there is plenty of that in pacing yourself. It’s just… well, easier to explain.

Beyond self-analysis, what does this mean when it comes to sharing experiences? It’s simple: it makes it easier. This is no football game where you have to try and convey subtle tactical changes, the impact of a missed penalty, the bad timing of a substitution… it is no tennis encounter affected by a bad line call in the second game of the third set… if after a run you text, tweet or indeed just say “Ten miles, 1h33’55””, as I might have done a few mornings back, you are already providing a fairly good indication of your performance and the opportunity to comment upon it with it. Of course there is scope to enhance it further: 217m of elevation made it hard going in some places, there wasn’t much wind about but the end of the Esplanade is always a killer, and the final stretch up Nore Road is just what you need at that stage… not! Those are details, embellishments to a picture that is otherwise factual, accurate, unblemished by officials or competitors.

I feel better placed to appreciate what fellow runners are experiencing than I felt in other sports. Again, it’s because it’s easier to compare scenarios. So you understand what it means to go out in the pouring rain at 6:40am, to be a mile from home and need the toilet (sorry but it’s true!), so get to a mile from the finishing line and suddenly feel drained… And, because you understand, you can empathise.
Sure, I fully understand what it’s like to lose a key tennis match in a 3rd set tie-break having won the first set and I fully understand what it’s like to lose a football match on penalties. But there are always more variables surrounding those scenarios, not least the opposition (did you lose it or were you beaten?) and your team-mates (was it really their fault?). Running is simpler: it’s just you and what’s under your feet. There’s a simplicity, an integrity that I really appreciate – and that is reflected in the type of people you meet through it. (The integrity that is, I’m not making any intellectual comments here!)

I played at Portishead Lawn Tennis Club for around a decade. During that time I probably played around 50 league fixtures: four players per club, four doubles’ matches. It’s as close to a team format as tennis gets.
During those matches I’d support my partner, we’d share advice and we’d gee each other up. This would work better with some partners than others. It would all be fairly basic stuff: mid-match is not a time to be getting into the finer technical points of any sport. That’s what club sessions are for…
…only you wouldn’t see much of it then, either. There are multiple reasons for this. There isn’t the time in between games; you don’t hang around much afterwards; any such discussion has to be practical, words alone are pointless; and most of us don’t want to come across as patronising know-it-alls when, ultimately, we’re all just amateurs engaging in a few hours’ escapism. As for those who don’t mind coming across thus, they are often ignored anyway…

Last but not least, the guy who’s your partner on a Sunday afternoon is your opponent on a Tuesday night, he could be drawn against you in the Club Championships in the Spring… you raise your guard again. Less so with beginners: if they’re no threat you do your utmost to help them, trying to ensure you’re not overloading them or expecting too much of them. But those whom I saw as threats got little off me and I got little off them. I wouldn’t have expected it to be any other way.

I have not found any of this with my social media running buddies. Maybe it’s because we don’t really see each other or maybe it’s because, even if we were to run the same races, we’d have different goals: it wouldn’t be a matter of beating each other but of achieving our goals, hitting a PB, etc.. And sure, it’s also because any running advice is easier to word, to encapsulate in a 140-character tweet than any advice about a forehand grip. I’m sure there’s an edge between runners of similar levels but, otherwise, if you’re smart enough to recognise that your pal’s better than you, you know you’ve got nothing to gain by trying to keep up with him/her. Go for broke in a tennis match and you may still lose but you may win more games or sets than you were hoping for. But go for broke to beat a mate in a race and… you won’t reach the finishing line.

I genuinely enjoy seeing my online running buddies do well. Thanks to the online running/cycling tool/community Strava, I can see exactly what, when, where and how they’ve run – providing, that is, they used a GPS device (watch or smartphone) and posted its data. This engenders the online equivalent of back-slapping and cheering, in the shape of Strava’s ‘kudos’ (Zuckerberg would call it ‘Like’) and accompanying comments, creating a virtuous circle of inspiration drawn and provided. Seeing that Nic’s run a 10-miler, for example, doesn’t make me feel bad because I only ran 7.77: I recognise and acknowledge his achievement and draw inspiration for the next time I go out there, if not to run longer then maybe to run faster. And hopefully it’s a two-way thing – I’m fairly sure it is. I cannot think of any other sport in which someone else’s achievements are as motivating, whereas I can think of plenty where they may be discouraging or even, whisper quietly, engender jealousy…

If you don’t run, or indeed don’t do sport in general, the above paragraphs will sound like vacuous rubbish. If you’ve been out there running on your own, say at 5:30 on a cold December morning (but even on a warm and breezy June evening), then you will appreciate that any form of acknowledgement of your effort (and sometimes that’s just the getting out of bed part!) is welcome. Moreover, the simplicity of running comes to the fore again. You don’t need to analyse video footage of a badly-timed offside trap or a wild backhand down the line: glancing at distance, time and maybe altitude gain/loss (all factual and untainted by subjectivity) and you have an instant understanding of the run completed. Delve into splits and gradients and you have more valuable data at your disposal than most tennis pundits could dream of. Or maybe I shouldn’t say that, what with Cousin Joe working for Hawkeye right now..?!

Right, back to the fundamental question: Are these friendships?

Of course, that in itself raises the question of “What is friendship?” Do I have 378 friends, as my Facebook profile suggests? Do I hell. I probably have thirty – and half of those aren’t even on Facebook (yes, such people exist, apparently). I’m not going to define ‘friendship’ here, as no doubt it means different things to all of us and none of us enjoy a monopoly on the right definition: but I would expect that, however we define it, we end up with a similar number. If it’s fundamentally different, you are either amazing or deluded.

(OK, here’s where I jump off the fence… sort of!)

I certainly think online exchanges can provide the foundation for friendships. I think some of the relationships they enable are more supportive and constructive than some I enjoy with people one would traditionally class as ‘friends’, certainly in the specific domain of running. But, in order to be fully classed as friendships, is face-to-face interaction required?

I’ve pondered this at length. At one point I was leaning towards stating that you do have to meet in the flesh the person behind the avatar for reality to rubber-stamp or throw out your online experiences. But here’s the thing: the amount of benefit I’ve had from my relationships with them, in terms of advice and inspiration, is truly phenomenal. They influence my purchasing decisions more than multi-million advertising campaigns, they help me find extra strength when out on the road more than any “Runner’s World” article… my relationship with them might be virtual but their impact on what I do and how I do it is absolutely tangible.

So, having weighed all the evidence and overthunk the matter extensively, I’m going to say that yes, I do consider as friends some of the #nutters I’ve met on Twitter and whose runs I now follow on Strava. That notwithstanding, I am quick to add that I would also dearly love to meet them in the flesh to cement those relationships. Which ties up with what I wrote about my friendship with Jon, which was strengthened significantly by our shared experiences along the roads of Pill and subsequently Bristol. Male friendships require that DYRW (“Do You Remember When”) moment: “Do you remember that tweet” doesn’t quite cut it. Now, if I were to run a race with some of my Twitter buddies… well that would be one heck of a DYRW, eh?

Who knows, maybe that will be the Sheffield Half Marathon on May 12. I’m running it and so are some of them. We’ve loosely discussed running together but, and rightly so, not had any firm talks as that bonding feeling of sharing an experience should not compromise the pursuit of individual goals, whatever they may be, or the race will deliver the opposite result.

So, if you’re one of the #nutters reading this, I hope the conclusion I reached does not offend you. Thanks again for all the advice, inspiration and perspiration. See you out there on the wires soon… and, hopefully, one day on some sodden field or sun-kissed asphalt.

Post-Scriptum: My perspective on this matter and on the value of Web-native relationships may well be influenced by the fact that my wife and I met via an online dating site. We might have had something goin’ on before we met, but only then did we receive confirmation. In fact, my wife would argue she only had that confirmation the second time we met, as she will forever insist that the guy she first met in the real world wasn’t the one she’d met online, rather a quiet, shy and introvert (to the point of coming across as cold) version. Not that I realised this at the time, or how close I got to the beginning proving the end (us blokes rarely do, right?), but it was our online foundation that earned me a second chance. As proven by the last eight years and two kids, I obviously took it.

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