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Friends don't just make tough times tolerable — they are the secret to finding true joy

Team Red, White and Blue - Salt Lake City prepares to run the Utah Indoor Marathon at the Olympic Oval. From left to right: Tom Luoma, Jason Comstock and Amy Donaldson.
Team Red, White and Blue - Salt Lake City prepares to run the Utah Indoor Marathon at the Olympic Oval. From left to right: Tom Luoma, Jason Comstock and Amy Donaldson.
Susan Prince DuKatz

KEARNS — We were shuffling along for several minutes without talking when one of my friends asked what I was thinking.

“I hate this,” I responded without hesitation. “And I’m not sure I can actually run 40 more laps.”

As soon as I said it, I realized it sounded extremely negative (because it was). I thought, for just a few seconds, about trying to twist my desperate admission into something positive. Maybe offer up a much more encouraging thought about perseverance and toughness. I really didn’t want to be Debbie Downer.

But I just couldn’t do it.

“Well, you asked what I was thinking,” I said, which did elicit some laughs from the friends who’d talked me into running Saturday’s Utah Indoor Marathon at the Olympic Oval.

I met Jason Comstock and Tom Luoma when I joined Team Red, White and Blue, an organization that aspires to “enrich the lives of veterans” by helping them to adjust to life as civilians. It’s unique because it’s an organization made up of veterans and civilians, and while I signed up to help veterans, I’ve actually gained a lot more than I’ve given.

First off, some members of the group have become the running group I never wanted to join. I have such an unpredictable schedule, and let’s be honest, an inability to sustain a regular training schedule, that committing to a running group seemed like an unpleasant and impossible feat.

As it turns out, running buddies (and friends in general) offer a lot of advantages that make it hard to hang on to that loner attitude. There are dozens of studies proving that working out with a partner, friends or in a class won’t just help you be more consistent and committed, it actually improves your performance.

I started thinking about this idea of friends making everything better, even easier and more enjoyable, about halfway through my 96 laps. My legs were tired, my head was aching, and I was missing the sunrise that I’d come to view as my reward for early-morning running. So, I started thinking, as I often do in these moments, about why I chose to be here on this track, running laps.

It was Luoma’s idea. And once he and Comstock signed up, it was as much about being left out, as it was believing it was a good idea to finish our longest training run to date during a supported race.

And it was all fun and games (and corny pictures taken by our friends) until the reality of 96 laps started to sink in, which only took about 30 laps. I started thinking about the things in my life that mean the most to me. How many of them involve other people? How many of them are mine and mine alone?

I had a lot of time to divide up my life as we circled the Olympic Oval’s track, but it didn’t take me long to realize that which I valued most wasn’t just attached to other people, their involvement was a key component. When it came to my most joyful experiences, they were the secret ingredients.

That idiom “Misery loves company” was meant to warn us that miserable people want others to be miserable. But there is a sports version of this, in which my misery is transformed into something beautiful when I share it with others.

I’ve had this experience in the past to a much lesser degree. I’ve suffered through some tough racing experiences — running and cycling — and enjoyed it only because of the people I met. Their kindness, their encouragement and their stories pushed me to achieve things I otherwise might not have achieved on my own.

But the last few months I’ve had a different kind of shared misery with Jason and Tom, and frankly with some of the Team RWB members who’ve joined us for some of our weekly long runs. It began with Team RWB’s Wednesday night and Saturday morning runs. People start tossing out this goal and that goal, and I said I’d like to run a 50-mile race — someday.

Coincidentally, a few days later I voiced this same desire to a much more talented and accomplished running friend, who sold me on the idea of running the Antelope Island Buffalo Run 50-mile race in March.

I then immediately set out to try and convince someone, anyone, to run it with me. Jason signed up first, and then Tom. We all had our own individual reasons seeking this kind of challenge. Most days we’re training on our own, but we do share once-a-week long runs that have been bonded us in ways I didn’t expect.

We’ve each dealt with challenges from illness to sprained ankles as we push ourselves — and drag each other — to some pretty painful and seriously exhilarating training experiences. I knew I enjoyed our long runs, but I didn’t know how critical they were to my continued improvement and success until one week when illness meant trying to log the long run alone.

I only managed 12 miles in Millcreek Canyon, and it was not only treacherously icy and as tough a trail run as I’ve ever endured, but for the first time ever, I was lonely.

It was a revelation that I thought about as we circled the ice at the Olympic Oval Saturday. I have numerous reasons to love the sport of running. But right at the top of the list is that logging miles alone allows me to let go of toxic thoughts and feelings, while opening my heart to peace and inspiration.

Very few runs have ended with me feeling as stressed and as troubled as when I started. So here I was missing people I really hadn’t known very long, for reasons I didn’t fully understand.

I know Tom makes us all laugh, and I know Jason will know the course. I know they’ll show up when they say they will, and that they’re prepared to do battle with whatever training situation we’re facing. They appreciate a beautiful sunrise and a timely joke. They never complain about the number of potty breaks I require, or the pace I need to run.

One week Jason’s brother Michael joined us and we had a rough 22-miler that included the same hill three times. The third time, we didn’t talk about it, but we all ran it, even after saying we didn’t think we could. Jason got to the top first, then Tom, then me, followed by Michael. At the top, Jason stood, high-fiving us as we finished. He did the same after we crossed the finish line, limping and laughing at the Olympic Oval Saturday.

After a few months of training with them, I feel stronger and more capable than I’ve ever felt.

I feel so strong, in fact, that when I have thoughts like, “This is too hard. I can’t possibly finish this. What made me think I was capable of this?” they seem weaker, less persuasive.

It is a bit of encouragement from Jason or a joke from Tom and I don’t feel nearly as negative as the doubt that wants to convince me I can’t. In fact, even as I wonder if we’ll make it to the finish line of our first 50-miler, and how it was that somehow we ended up on this path, I am overwhelmed with gratitude.

So, yeah, I thought about how much I hated running in a circle for a few laps. But I also thought about how lucky I am that I have friends who are willing to be miserable with me, just so I can dream bigger than I dared to on my own.

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