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Why I run alone (and sprint away from running groups)

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I run, but sometimes I feel like I'm running away. Not from my life – well, maybe a little – but from other runners.

For those of us who run to practise the lost art of solitude, the increasing number of running groups swarming park paths and spilling over curbs is an irritant. These hordes – race clinics and running groups and colleagues on a new kind of lunch run – seem to be on every corner waiting for the light to change, bouncing up and down like Whack-A-Moles in reflective jackets.

In one way, running groups are good for me, because as soon as I see them, I run faster – into ravines, down alleys, anywhere that qualifies as "away." One Sunday morning (it's always a Sunday morning) on a leafy neighbourhood street, a pack suddenly materialized from around a corner and I immediately reversed direction only to find yet another group bobbing toward me. Like the last non-zombie in 28 Days Later, I zigzagged an escape.

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Of course, it's a good thing that people are running at all, with obesity rates and other symptoms of sedentariness on the rise. The sport is becoming more popular: In Toronto, where I live, approximately 30,000 runners combined participate in the city's three big half- and full marathons – double the number since 2003. Not a weekend passes in the warm months without racers blocking off sections of the city and its environs.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of Canadians 12 and over who say they run or jog has gone from 14 per cent in 2001 to 23 per cent today – that's 6,533,000 of us.

But while more people may be running, we're not as fast as we used to be. Running was once the domain of an obsessive, sinewy few on the fringes of sport. Its democratization means that the average times in many marathons are increasing by a minute or two each year, a testament to the get-'er-done mentality of the hobbyist runner.

The same incremental changes are affecting the mental and physical isolation that once defined the sport. While the running part of racing remains an intrinsically solo experience, the adjacent race "scene" usually involves live music and much mingling at both ends of the course. People sign up in teams at workplaces; families and friends run together in matching T-shirts and goofy hats. Running seems to be turning into the thing I hated most as a kid: a team sport.

John Stanton is president of the Running Room, Canada's most popular running-gear chain, with 118 stores across the country, all of them holding regular clinics and running groups. He says he noticed a shift toward group runs in the high-anxiety moment after 9/11, when safety became a bigger issue, especially for women.

"Running used to be 80 per cent dominated by men. Now, it's about 60 per cent female," he says. "Women brought the social aspect to the sport. There was always the positive peer pressure of running in a group, but women made it more about making friends. … It provides a sense of community in a time when we crave community."

But for me, running (casually – around 10 kilometres, two to three times a week) provides the opposite: a reprieve from others.

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Against the wind

For every woman who wants to make her running mates into bar mates, I suspect there is another who runs to be alone with herself, a singular state that may be attainable only on the trail, far from the demands of home and office. All running requires is a pair of shoes and the will. Group running means co-ordinating schedules and slotting yet another event into the daily grind, sullying the sport's autonomy, which is the best thing about it.

Avia Peacock is a nurse in a Toronto independent school who has completed three marathons and rises around 5 a.m. six days a week to train. She also has four kids, including 3½-year-old twins. Ms. Peacock usually runs alone, eschewing even the iPod so she can, she says, listen to her muscles.

"I run because I hate teams. No one ever passes me the puck. No one ever passes me the Frisbee. I love that, when I run, I can be as fast or as slow as I want, or go for crazy mileage and no one can tell me that I can't," she says. "There's probably an obsessive level of control too. Every other hour of the day, I have four kids screaming at me. When you have four kids, your identity is all about motherhood. I've sure I've subconsciously tried to reshape my identity around running."

Ms. Peacock isn't opposed to group running – she got into the sport by running with women from her Fitmom exercise class, back when she had only one kid. There's no time to organize such get-togethers now, but she sometimes trains with a friend, a nine-time marathoner. "We get to chat and complain about things as we run. It's my only social time, and she's so good that she makes me a better runner."

This is what social psychologists call social facilitation: your performance on certain tasks improves when you do them with others, or in front of an audience. Runners set records not during training, but in races, buoyed by other runners and the observing crowd. But the participant must be good at the task for social facilitation to kick in. If the subject isn't skilled, the effect of the audience is social inhibition – a decrease in speed and accuracy.

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Maybe my fear of crowds is really social inhibition – a lack of faith in my ability to perform well in front of others, left over from being picked last in gym class.

Or perhaps I simply want to achieve "flow," famously defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience as the state of complete absorption to the point where everything else – maternal noise; professional pressures; the collapse of the European Union – simply falls away. Achieving flow is intensely private, near religious.

I run to reach that blankness as the sun comes up, or in the middle of the day, when, if I'm locked in to the groove, even the traffic becomes invisible. Slogging through many kilometres to find flow and then running into a flock of chipper, chattering runners – possibly literally – is jarring; it's like the cast of Glee crashing the Buddhist temple.

Amid all this togetherness, the concept of "personal best" threatens to become "public best." My watch, a Nike Plus, can instantly post my times to an online running forum (I decline), and many runners share their most mundane daily runs on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe the concept of the unwitnessed, personal achievement – the dark and gruelling, private triumph of a conquered road – doesn't make sense in wired times.

No wonder running has morphed into a group activity, when there is no such thing as solitude any more. Maybe I run from the groups because they remind me of the walking texters, unable to face the separateness of the human condition, ever refusing to be entirely alone.

Or maybe I'm a grump. With that in mind, I joined the masses for my first 10K race last month. My six-year-old daughter and I had walked/run a charity 5K for fun, but I was curious to see if social facilitation would work for me. On a chilly Saturday morning, I tried to appreciate the steel drummers while ignoring the hard-core runners warming up with acrobatic leaps.

We began, and I focused on a woman in front of me, trying to follow. This proved stupid, tiring me out, although it also increased my overall pace. But I didn't really find flow until I mentally left the crowd, no longer panicked by people passing, or noticing those I passed. I hit my stride, appreciating the cheers, but not desperate for them. All I needed was the movement. I might as well have been alone.

Katrina Onstad's second novel is called Everybody Has Everything . Follow Katrina Onstad on Twitter: @katrinaonstad

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