Running ugly, together
Maeve Filbin | Friday, April 23, 2021
The last time I played on an organized sports team was my brief stint in the world of intermural basketball as a Saint Mary’s freshman. We called ourselves “Belles Got Ballz,” and we were terrible. Absolutely no form to be found — we traveled like nobody’s business, and many baskets were made granny style. However, we inexplicably made it to the final round of the championship tournament, in which we were famously the first freshmen to square up against the never-defeated senior team.
Much of this opposing team was made up of off-season Saint Mary’s athletes, as well as several certified Soul Cycle instructors. That is to say that they were exceptionally strong, fast and coordinated. We got spanked, but more importantly, both teams had fun.
Up until college, I had called myself a member of many teams — track, cross country, lacrosse, volleyball, basketball, Irish dancing, soccer and softball. I tried every sport my parents would sign me up for — let me know if you want to see my water polo highlight reel — and loved learning the rules of the game alongside my best friends.
It is important to note that I valued quantity over quality, preferring to sample as many sports as possible without ever becoming exceptionally talented in any of them. Maybe that makes me well-rounded, but it more likely explains why I am not a college athlete or a regular writer for the Observer Sports department.
I am, however, what some might consider to be a runner. I run every week, something the tri-campus and its surrounding area makes very easy to do with its various lake trails, forest paths and winding river.
Cross country is definitely the sport I identify most closely with, as I ran long distance for seven years and met some of my best friends during hill sprints and out-and-backs. Of all the myriad of sports I joined over the years, I poured the most heartfelt effort into my high school cross country team.
Long distance running is gross; it’s sweaty and muddy and ugly (thanks to the team moms who brought nice cameras to meets, these moments are captured in high-definition). There’s way too much poison ivy and never enough Porta Potties. Cross country is also pretty lonely, despite the fact that you’re surrounded by other runners and you’re all sharing the same desperate goal: Get to the finish line without throwing up Gatorade.
As a retired high school cross country runner, I’ve held onto the basics (run on grass, don’t overextend your stride, don’t clench your fists, don’t swing your arms across your chest) which have helped me improve and stay relatively injury-free.
I’ve also discovered three things:
1) Running for your own health and enjoyment is an extremely empowering experience.
2) I’m kind of an ugly runner.
3) I miss running with a team.
Running independent of a team invites you to explore your own abilities and limits outside of a competitive environment; it also holds you accountable and makes you more patient with yourself. Running by myself gives me time to think, to breathe outside and feel grounded.
Something else I’ve noticed: I’m kind of an ugly runner. I’m flat-footed and one of my legs is few inches longer than the other. I tore my ACL and shredded my meniscus during my years as a lacrosse midfielder, which adds a certain je ne sais quoi to my running gait. I can run five miles, but it won’t look like “Baywatch.”
Third, I definitely miss having teammates. Running is an inherently lonely sport. Everything you’re competing against is internal: the lactic acid in your legs, cramped muscles, your limited lungs. It’s as much mental exertion as it is physical, especially if you hydrated at Olf’s the night before. So as much as I love taking the trails at my own pace, in my own head I miss knowing that other people are putting in the work with me.
I couldn’t help but wonder … where could I find a support system for lonely, flat-footed runners?
Naturally, I found the answer on TikTok when I followed the Ugly Boys Running Club, a group based in San Francisco, California that has built a nationwide community around running for the sake of running. The club has a Strava group and Discord channel, makes curated Spotify running playlists and custom screen-printed shirts and keeps up an active presence on TikTok.
“We’re not out here to run eight-minute miles,” one club member says as he jogs up a grassy knoll. “We’re not out here to run nine-minute miles. We’re not out here to perform. We’re running ugly and we’re just having fun getting our body moving. I want to emphasize that this is not a competition … this is about being a sh*tty runner, an ugly runner, and doing it because it’s fun and it’s good for us. Let’s push each other to keep doing it.”
I love that the Ugly Boys Running Club has created a space for generally unskilled but earnest runners, and I’m excited to join the conversation. I’d invite every runner who’s ever passed me on the lake trails and given me the classic close-lipped grimace, wheezed my way or thrown a thumbs-up to do the same. Let’s get ugly.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.