Running marathons is hard—breaking up with your running group is harder

By | 03.12.2017

After three years running with a group in NYC—five marathons and thousands of miles in—I was summarily kicked out. It happened in one of the most 21st century ways possible. I was booted off the private collective our group leader had created in the running app Strava, after raising concerns about, among other things, his behavior toward women.

Even though I’d been unhappy in the group for a while, my exit was a sucker punch to the gut. I never had the chance to talk things over, to speak my peace, to say goodbye to the group’s 25-plus members. The immediacy and harshness of it stung. Carrie Bradshaw got a Post-It note when Berger broke up with her in Sex and the City; I didn’t even get a text.

I realized early on that’s why leaving this group hurt so much: it felt just like the break-up of a real relationship. These emotions I felt as a result—rejection, sadness, disappointment that I was no longer part of something—I’ve felt them before.

This realization has been confirmed by research, which shows leaving a group can mirror the experience of breaking up with a partner. “Both involve brain regions that are also associated with physical pain,” says Dr. David Marcus, a faculty member of Washington State University’s psychology department. People experience a type of social pain when they are rejected or shunned by a group, similar to the pain experienced when a couple breaks up, whether it’s being kicked out of a high-school clique, or falling out with your family. This is compounded by the fact that a group can become part of a person’s self in much the same way as a romantic partner can, Marcus says.

The possibility of being ostracized or shunned for speaking out is very real—the women relaying their experiences with harassment and discrimination in the groundswell #metoo movement are only the latest group to attest to this fact. It can be an emotionally confusing time, and recognizing the dynamics that are at play could help along the way. Knowing there was a reason behind what I was feeling certainly helped me deal with this break-up—even though there were more people involved, more emotions to navigate, and more social media accounts to unfollow. Along the way, I learnt coping techniques that allowed me to mourn the loss, and reflect on what I learnt from being part of, and then leaving the group, and this helped me truly move on.

Running goals

Like many, I came to New York City six years ago looking to build my career and life experience. Along the way, I fell in love with running, and ended up finding a group, one of about 200 in the city, that shared my passion for pounding the pavement.

There is a solidarity that comes from being part of a group that meets regularly. In a city full of 8 million people coming and going, being part of this team brought me a sense of belonging, fulfilling what Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary argued back in 1995 is a fundamental human need. Forming and maintaining lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal relationships builds one’s social identity, and is crucial to our well-being, they argued.

I met this group in August 2013. I came to know the leader, a running coach, and some members during a weekend of what was essentially an adult running camp, sponsored by a major apparel brand. Before then, I’d seen the crew around town: aloof, cool, and seemingly totally out of my league. While I was running in bright pink day-glo marathon gear, they wore muted tones and sleek black, the latest shoes in tow.

It turned out we had a lot in common, like a love of Afro-Caribbean music, running hard, and drinking even harder. Back in the city, after a few dates of open track sessions followed by bowls of ramen, we made it official. I joined the group.

We spent most Tuesdays and Thursdays, and some weekends, together, forging a bond on the tracks, streets, and dirt-paths of NYC. United by our common aim of elevating our running performance, we had relatively more ambitious goals than just going out for a run. Some wanted to attain a sub 5-minute mile; others, like me, wanted to qualify for the Boston Marathon. We kept each other on course, feeding the team ethos, and building each other up. We celebrated birthdays and births, and commiserated job losses or family tragedies. We pushed one another to our mental and physical edges, in our pursuit to become better runners and for some of us, better people, using what we’d learnt on the run to overcome personal barriers.

These are examples of some of the incredibly strong forces at play within group dynamics, as Kurt Lewin explained in 1949. The pioneering social psychologist argued that people may come to a group with very different dispositions, but if they share a common objective, they are likely to act together to achieve it. Our goal was to take ourselves beyond the limits our minds had set for us, and many of us did. Pretty soon, being in this group became the longest relationship I’d had since moving to NYC.

My belief in these ties began to waver when I started hearing claims that our coach had a history of mistreating women. Some of these women spoke to me directly about their allegations, which ranged from verbal bullying, to a direct accusation of assault by a previous partner. Even though I could not directly validate these claims, given the powerful role of the group’s leader in our tight-knit group, I felt that our coach wasn’t acting with transparency about these stories, especially since he was the only one leading the group, after his co-founder left to form an all-female running collective a year and a half prior.

I wasn’t sure how to deal with the situation. I loved being part of the group; I was an enthusiastic and dedicated member, but I felt more and more dubious about the man at the center of it.

I confided in a fellow member I trusted about some of these feelings. The next day, when I went to upload my run on Strava, I couldn’t access our group, a private space where we shared our runs and kept track of each other’s workouts in between meetups. I checked in with the friend I had spoken to, who is also the group’s administrator, and she confirmed that I had been shut out. I was then removed from our Slack group. And later, I was left out of a meeting held to address the claims against our coach (I was later told he denied the accusations there, as his girlfriend has done in emails to myself and others).

After I recovered from the shock of my abrupt exclusion, I embarked on a social media clean-up to create virtual space between myself and the group. Just as it may be difficult to see an ex go on with their life or meet other people, it became difficult for me to see the group continue running races without me and taking on new members.

Instead of losing one partner, I lost about two dozen, including a dear friend who I’d been close with before we both joined the group. It was incredibly important for me to create real and virtual space between myself and the group. I had to blanket unfollow and unfriend all the members of the group to create this distance.

Still, my attempts at distancing myself hasn’t stopped Strava from recommending I follow the team members to “Keep up with their latest adventures!” after I’d purposefully unfollowed them. Nor has it stopped me from seeing their group pictures on my Instagram Explore page, because I’ve “interacted with similar accounts.” Facebook’s On This Day feature frequently resurface memories of past group runs.

I also had to find ways to interrupt obsessively thinking about the break-up. If you keep reminding yourself of what once was, it’s likely to create dopamine-related cravings and feelings of withdrawal. Psychologist Melanie Greenberg advises finding activities to distract yourself, like organizing to hang out with friends. After the initial break-up, I limited the amount of time I spent on social media, rewarding myself with new books, and trips where I could go out into nature. I sought friends from outside the group I hadn’t spent as much time within the past.

Most relationship gurus will also advise taking the time to mourn what was. So I had my fair share of sad songs, comfort food, and bouts of staying in bed. There was some anger too, and a bit of denial to process. But then there was the reflection part—again, a vital part of getting over a break-up, Greenberg attests.

I’ve taken responsibility for my role in the break-up, acknowledging that perhaps I should have voiced my concerns as soon as I felt them. But I will be more mindful of the expectations I have for any new group I may think about joining, and I’ll look to trust myself enough to address the situation early on, if the leader or any other person of influence is acting in a manner that’s not on par with my morals or ethics.

After looking back over the personal success I achieved being in the group, like qualifying for the Boston Marathon and running my fastest marathon ever, I realized that while it had been good to have the support of a team behind me, I was ultimately the one that ran my races and broke through my limits. Thinking about that helped re-build my self-confidence. Groups can be incredibly positive in helping us push through limits. But perhaps more importantly, they remind us of what we’re truly capable.

In regaining my self-worth, I’ve remembered that good relationships thrive on mutual respect and should be a source of joy and happiness. In the future, I won’t be afraid to myself break off any relationship that no longer brings these things to me, even if they’re helping me achieve things in other ways.

And as with most breakups, relationship gurus will often advise the broken-hearted to take up exercise or a sport. Luckily, I have that part covered.

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