Why Running Clubs (CAN) Suck

On my long run this week, I saw a group of runners heading my way. I gulped and jumped off the curb to run in the bike lane. If it was my former running club, I didn’t want to say hi.

    I wasn’t always like this. Running clubs can be an awesome resource, especially for beginners, those new to a city, or those training for a long distance races like marathons and ultra-marathons. You can forge true friendships, find new routes, and enjoy company on what would otherwise be grueling, boring, long runs. I had been a very active member of this running club for two years, and for a few months I had even served on the board. I liked my pace group, I liked the track coach, I made a ton of friends through the group, and I liked the camaraderie and overall vibe of the club. Yet, like any group of people, a club can become toxic, unhelpful, or even unhealthy.

    When our president decided it was time to resign, the energy of the entire club—which had hundreds of members—subtly shifted. A few members of the board decided that they had a vision for the club and made moves to take control. As part of that, I was asked to resign my board position because I had become a coach for another running club, 261 Fearless. Naively, I had assumed that my leadership role at 261 Fearless—which is focused on beginners—would complement my leadership at my current club, which was focused on more seasoned runners. But it was not acceptable to the people who had taken control of the leadership.

I still wanted to be a part of the club, though, so I agreed to their request although I was unhappy about it. The first time I went on a group run after that, there was no pace group leader for the group I usually run with, the 10:30s. Normally, I would have offered to lead, but I now knew that the club’s code of conduct declared I couldn’t technically be a pace group leader because I had trained as a coach elsewhere. Without a leader, those of us who would have run 10:30 were forced to run with the 10-minute milers, a pace group too fast for us.

The next group run I attended was worse. The new co-presidents wouldn’t look me in the eye; one actively avoided me. And the woman who had requested my resignation was in my pace group, so I joined a different pace group that was too slow for me. At the club breakfast afterward, I felt uncomfortable and unwelcome. And there was no one to voice my concerns to as a member, because the people in charge were the very people who had rejected my leadership and participation.

To say that these politics bothered me would be an understatement. I felt like I was being bullied in high school all over again. Because I still had friends in the club (and on the board of the club), I didn’t want to vent to my fellow members, but I also didn’t want to support the club anymore. I decided to stay away and shut my mouth. I didn’t say anything negative when a friend asked me why I wasn’t coming anymore. “I do my long runs on Sundays,” I replied. I packed up every shirt I had with the club’s insignia, as well as the prized Nike jacket only board members got to wear.

I literally ran into my friend Orianne on a path near our homes a few days after my last run with the club.

“Are you still a member of that running club?” she asked me. I explained the situation as concisely as I could, and she said, “You know what? I actually felt a lot of pressure to be faster, so I stopped going. No one seemed to listen when I would say that being faster wasn’t a goal for me.”

I really believe in the notion that the best revenge is living well, and that everything happens for a reason. Although there were moments where I wanted to blast the club on social media, or talk publicly about how the sexist, narcissist co-president ignored members that weren’t fast, I decided not to (other than in this post, obviously). Yet I was happy to hear that I wasn’t alone in my discontent.

A few months have passed since I was asked to resign. I’ve been reflecting on the ways that particular club was good for me, and the reasons why it became so toxic. I’ve had to work at it, but I’m able to start letting go of the anger and resentment I had toward the whole experience and the club in general. The drama had very little to do with me or my leadership, and a lot to do with the interpersonal relationships and insecurities of the people who were newly in charge. I realized I was so pissed about all of it because I passionately believe that every runner should be included and treated equally regardless of pace or ability or goals. This belief evolved into the idea for Your Best Run.

My advice is to proceed with caution when it comes to clubs. Find one that works for you, that appeals to you, and that has a healthy approach to running. Make sure the club is supportive of your goals as individual. Be wary of clubs that focus on speed, performance, or a specific training regimen—unless that’s what you’re into yourself. Look for flexibility, inclusivity, and camaraderie.

And, above all else: If the club stops being a good fit, then stop going.