If we’re lucky, we have communities of friends who support us, share our interests, and help us navigate life. Some call these tribes, and they can be born from various spaces and interactions: our childhood and school experiences, our jobs and careers, our hobbies and extracurriculars, a shared life-changing event. They can be rooted in geographic proximity, or cultivated online without consideration for time and location, but these tribes are important to satisfy the human need for safety and belonging.
This is part of what makes the idea of a Big Move so daunting to so many. Moving to a new city, state, or even country results in a disruption to our tribal memberships, particularly those that are location-bound.
Children can rely on school, activities, faith communities, and their families to help them establish new social groups in new places. However, for adults, there are fewer guaranteed mechanisms for entering new social groups, especially those that aren’t employment- or faith-centric. How do we do this when we have to both create and navigate the social landscape ourselves?
I asked some friends this very question a few years ago. These two friends, J and L, moved from the Midwest homeland to Denver in their mid-twenties, and faced the prospect of re-establishing themselves and their social network in a new city as adults.
One point I remember from this conversation was the notion of false starts. L described a false start as one of the first friendships made in a new place, but one that is difficult to sustain beyond the initial friendship honeymoon period. This can be due to a variety of factors: lack of common interests, change in proximity (e.g. moving away, job loss or shift), or other circumstances (e.g. generational differences, a break-up in the group). Most of the first friends L made were co-workers who were a bit older than she was, and who were at a different life stage that involved marriages, buying homes, and raising young children. For L, this dynamic worked so long as the group had shared employment to draw upon in their friendships. However, once she moved on to a different job with a different employer, maintaining these relationships became more challenging. Consequently, the friendships fizzled out.
I think that false starts are a natural part of the life cycle of friendships at any stage of life. I have dozens of friends who still hold prominent places in my heart, but with whom I’ve been in and out of touch for several years. I’ve had false start friendships nearly everyplace I’ve lived, and in nearly every context I’ve operated. In my view, false starts tell us a great deal about who we are, such as what we prioritize and value in ourselves and in our relationships.
False starts can also challenge us to reframe what constitutes a meaningful friendship. Moving beyond the surface-level stuff, such as shared hobbies, interests, or schedules, helps us uncover the deeper values that bind us together as people. Getting to this deeper stuff is how friendships nurture the soul, and this deeper stuff is what carries friendships into the longer term.
As an introvert, I am all about the deeper stuff. I can fake small talk and superficial chatter with the best of them, but I feel most comfortable when I can bypass vanity and appearances and social games and get right to the heart of things. I prefer to mix humor and light chatter among philosophical and heavier conversations about the world. I’m also someone who, while not necessarily competitive, loves a good challenge.
This in mind, it’s a strange phenomenon to realize that, two years into my Utah life, the majority of my friends are drawn from the ultramarathon tribe. Ultra running is only one small piece of my identity (despite the significant proportion of my weekly hours that training can consume), but it’s one I’ve become more comfortable assuming. To be clear, I’m not an elite athlete. I run, I train, and I sometimes race, but I’m still a back-of-the-packer when it’s all said and done.
But the people around me make it easy to label myself as an ultrarunner, and in a way that is honest and not boastful. This is because most ultra runners are humble, encouraging, and kind people, and ones who show up to support and celebrate these feats of physical and mental strength.
We’ve met and formed friendships when we’re not at our physical or emotional best. We’re absent of makeup and hair styling, and we’re often wearing non-matching clothes that have the phrase “sweat-wicking” in their descriptions. We’re dusty, dirty, muddy, wet, bruised, scraped, sunburn, frostbitten. We’ve been running, hiking, scrambling, and/or shuffling for hours or possibly days. We’ve reached the highest of emotional highs, and the lowest of emotional lows. We are dependent upon strangers at aid stations and one another to pull us out of the valleys to keep going strong.
In other words, ultra running is about raw human spirit. No pretense, just the tranquility of enjoying nature and the company of other nature lovers while nudging our respective breaking points a little bit farther away. The deeper stuff, shared through hours of contemplation on the trail.
This I can get behind, as most ultra runners are really doing this for themselves. A runner who brags to coworkers about running 100 miles over the weekend is likely to evoke looks of sympathy and concern for one’s mental state rather than awe and congratulations. It’s not about what other people think. It’s about who we are, and what we’re working through as grown ups. Finding a tribe of others who take to the trail for this purpose is a powerful thing.
Ultra running cuts across generations, jobs, income, geography, political affiliations, musical interests, non-running talents, family structures, and dietary preferences. My most frequent running partner is a 64-year-old man, a retired snowbird. My other running companions are ones drawn from a variety of backgrounds, and ones who I might not have met without our shared love of the trail.
But as I mentioned earlier, diverse friendships challenge us to grow in our empathy and as people. These athletes are people who, on paper, wouldn’t appear as a natural and comfortable fit for my friend group. However, as Dr. Paul writes, “We feel at home with people who support us in our highest good.”
That’s what ultra running has become for me. A place of comfort and support. A shared love of the outdoors.
One of my new tribes.