Posted On August 1, 2009 By In The Phast Lapp And 558 Views

The Group

Twelve year old Connor began an informal running program with his mom this summer. It was at her suggestion. Susan’s a good runner. She thought it would be good social/talk time together. But for Connor, it was with his mom. He wanted to prepare for football tryouts. The running “program” wasn’t structured in any way (distance, time of day or day of the week), and without any real sense of a goal or purpose. They were just going to run for a while, every now and then, through the neighborhood. Connor fell off the program quickly. A 12-year old boy will do that if not kept focused.

But Connor found renewed interest when his best friend and several of their buddies came upon the idea (themselves) of signing up for school’s cross country program this fall. Mom initially said “no” because Connor didn’t commit to her program. Susan was not going to allow her son to join the team with his buddies because she felt he should be reprimanded in some way for not following through with her program.

Dennis, Connor’s father, Susan’s husband, stepped in. Dennis is a good runner and keeps himself lean and fit, working out several times per week. He has a full time downtown job. They have three kids. Connor is the oldest.

Dennis wisely, and privately, pointed out that as parents they shouldn’t pour water on their son’s idea when it is a good thing for Connor, and that running with his mom isn’t nearly as fun as running with his neighborhood buds.

Dennis also pointed out that sometimes it takes a different stimulus to excite or inspire a person. What works for one person, may not work for another. In fact, that same idea or program may turn another person away.

Dennis saw the light in Connor’s eyes when he set upon his new adventure. Connor would not only be with his best friend, but his other friends as well, in a wholesome, healthy, and lifelong activity. The friends he makes now through this sport will, quite possibly, be his lifelong friends.

Initially, the sport will be secondary, though it will be what brings them all together to form a pack. For about the first year, it will be about the friendships and bonding, the stories and mutual experiences they will have as they come of age. Connor was, no doubt, motivated by this potential of bonding as much as, and possibly more than, running itself. In time, many years from now, his running will become more intrinsic, as he finds reasons deep within to continue the journey of putting one step in front of another, as fast as possible.

I recently had the opportunity to ride within an established pack, and love it. The group consisted of Smith, Monty, Jamie, Gibby, Scott, Big Rod, Khai, Art, and the occasional satellite rider that shows up now and then. They pierce the quiet and sometimes the darkness with their chain and derailur sounds. Moving in unison, they don’t speak, but use hand and arm gestures to point out turns, holes, cracks, sand, rocks, debris, slower cyclists, runners, cars with the announcement “Car up!” and the occasional dead rodent.

From what I saw, the core of the group were Smith, Monty, Jamie, and Gibby. During the ride, each had a strength and a weakness, though it may not have had anything to do with biking. But the group worked well. Very well.

Their pack is a shelter when one is being attacked by others, or had a rough week. It is celebratory when one has done well, and not necessarily at a race. They celebrate birthdays, and more importantly, each other. While riding, there are many things that go unspoken such as how someone rides, and how people will react to a particular situation. Though they know some of each other’s weaknesses, the needling that comes with the pack comes to an abrupt halt at unspoken boundaries.

I equated it to a musical band. After playing together for years, they play together well. There is respect. Maybe a little dating, or roommates, working together, or philosophical tension within the band. But the end product is that everyone benefits.

The occasional jam sessions with musicians, unknown to each other, is the same as a casual meetings of cyclists, who don’t know each other. They don’t have this same communication or camaraderie, simply because they don’t know each other. The group I rode with has been together for years. They’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and the uncomfortable.

When one of the riders did well at an Ironman race, everyone wanted to pat the person on the back. It was good to be part of the celebration at a restaurant. When one of them hosts a workout or race, all of them come out to support. (The breakfast after is terrific! Not so much for the food, but the camaraderie.) When one of the members crashes, gets injured, or is sick, the group rallies.

The group I swim with in the morning is very informal. It’s Lane five at the 6 am DAM workout at Baylor. A few of the stalwarts know each other; Pete, John, Kelly, Paul, Dave, Matt. When one arrives who is not familiar to us, we are friendly enough, if they aren’t faster than us. But among this pack we know who is a good puller, a better kicker, back stoker, or faster on the short distance sets. We’ve put in the time to know each other and there is comfort in that knowing. We all collectively watch out for each other and cheer each other on when someone’s having a good day.

A few nights ago, some members of a group I ran with almost 20 years ago, got together for dinner. It was great. A few were absent. Some, we were glad weren’t there. But the core was present. Mike, Michael, Amy, Janalou, and Randy. The occasion was Mike, our de facto team captain/coach, was in town. The last time this same group was together was our wedding, 13 years ago. The rest of the group was spread across north Texas like Texas wild flowers in the spring. Our lives had taken us in various directions.

I remember the tensions (Back then, Janalou and I were just acquaintances, who would eventually marry.), but I also remember the support of this group as we did our loop or loops of White Rock Lake. We formed one of the first groups at the lake, and had garnered a reputation as placing at most of the local races. (This was during the very competitive 1980’s.) There was solace, strength, and camaraderie in our group. We encouraged each other in our running pursuits, but it seems the support was less about running than it was about deeper friendship. We each had our strengths, and the pack knew to depend on which person in certain situations. We wouldn’t dare miss a run at the lake because we had a sense we were needed for the pack to operate well.

Over dinner we talked about running, but we also talked about each other’s lives. At the end of dinner, we were sad to have to go our separate ways, as lives sometimes do. But we promised to not let it be such a long time before we all got together again, exchanging phone numbers and emails.

Remembering last month’s column on types of runners, a person with a negative attitude is like poison among the group or pack, and should be avoided at all costs. It’s important to avoid a pack with a negative element that halts or impedes the athletes from getting in the scheduled workout, and attaining their best. Let’s face it: we can be our own worst critic, without the help of someone else to pull us down. These folks will undermine the structure of the group by infecting others with their lies, insinuations, passive-aggressive behaviors, or simply lasse-faire attitude. Such a person should be lanced from the body of the pack, or you should leave the pack.

The pack is a place of solace when the miles or the weather are intimidating, or motivation ebbs. There can be bonding in the group suffering together. Misery loves company.

Twelve year old Connor is embarking on one of the first bonding experiences of his life. He has a lot to live, but will have lived more deeply with his friends and running.

Chris Phelan has written, laid out, photographed, and published The Phast Times News since 2001. He’s crisscrossed Texas on his bike three times, swam 5 miles across Lake Ray Hubbard three times, completed three Ironman triathlons, and has represented the US in completion three times, and run with the Olympic Torch. He maintained All-American status for five years and has also biked across the country, 3600 miles in 30 days. The running/triathlon coach has PR’s of 2:27 marathon, 15:40 5K, 3:55 at the Hotter ‘n Hell Hundred, and 10:00:52 Ironman. Chris is the only person to have won overall and Master’s at Dallas’ Crosson Dannis road racing series, DRC road racing series, and the USAT/SMW duathlon series. In 1988 he began Dallas’ oldest track workout, 1998 started north Texas’ first treadmill class, and 2003 he founded the world-wide Ride Of Silence. He’s been twice nominated Master’s Road Runner of the Year, highlighted in a variety of magazines and is frequently asked to speak at camps and organizations about fitness. Outside of swimming, biking, and running, Chris has summited several mountains including Africa's Mount Kilimanjaro.