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Trying something new outdoors? Pick the right friend

  • Author: Alli Harvey
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published May 24, 2017

Exercising with friends can be a lot of fun, as these swimmers jumping off the floating dock on Little Campbell Lake discovered in 2013.  (Marc Lester / ADN archive 2013)

As a new runner at age 14, I hardly considered myself one. My debut run came at night. I wore a swimsuit top because it was the only thing I owned that was kind of serviceable as a sports bra.

It wasn't an accident that I was running in the dark. I was ashamed of my body back then, and I would have never, ever dreamed of going running with someone else. At first I told no one, much less invited anyone.

Over time that all changed. I now understand that it's normal for parts of my body to bounce around and jiggle. I'm not going to waste my time running only when no one can see me out of shame. I also understand that few people are judging me, because most people are equally caught up in worrying that people are judging them.

These days, I'm lucky to have lots of friends with whom I regularly exercise with outside. Of course, like any relationship, I don't look to one person for everything. Exercise pals come in many forms.

The ‘you can do it’ friend

I love getting to be that friend who goes for a walk with someone soon after they've had knee surgery. Or someone getting back in the swing of running as a new parent.

In a throwback to my former self, I really love when a friend is hesitant to get into something that feels daunting. Many people see running as all-out sprinting or nothing, and that is intimidating for someone wanting to try it. My strength has always been setting and keeping a steady pace. For me, it's encouraging to hear someone hesitant to try running say afterward that it felt doable.

I'm lucky to have friends that serve this role for me, too. They've coached my swimming. I've learned to stand-up paddleboard (I know that sounds easy, but if your balance is no better than mine, it's no small feat).

Friends have encouraged me to bicycle more, and to sign up for and train for races I never would have dreamed I could do. Then these friends have parked their butts on a bike right alongside me and showed me some of what they know.

It's a really empowering feeling to feel even semi-adept at something that once felt out of reach — and to celebrate the accomplishment with a friend.

The ‘push-yourself’ friend

On the other hand, the "push-yourself" friend is the kind of person I feared when I started running — someone faster and stronger who could leave me in the dust. If I want to keep up, I have to huff and puff.

I am perhaps overly judicious with the kind of activities I do with these friends. As someone who is not motivated by competition, I try to avoid that feeling of being outpaced or trying to outpace somebody. That takes away from the enjoyment.

I like to push myself, but not to the edge. However, pushing that edge is exactly what motivates some athletes. While this isn't something I'll ever understand or pursue, I can certainly appreciate it.

So with push-yourself friends, it's all about knowing my limits and how far I want to go, and then setting my own expectations.

With people who are just completely out of my league, like mountain runners, I either try to find activities where we're more on the same page, or get outside at the same time but not together. For instance, my husband and I both want to do the same activities but at vastly different paces. We frequently park at the same trailhead, set a time to meet, and then take off into the woods on our own runs.

With others, I offer the caveat up front that I may be slow. This isn't a self-effacing thing. It's more of an acknowledgment, so we can have shared expectations. I don't want to go for a run thinking it's a time to enjoy the woods and gab, while my friend is thinking this would be a nice way to train for Mount Marathon.

In the end, as long as we both want to get outside, we can meet somewhere in the middle. Well, actually, let's be honest — when I'm the slower person, that middle point is usually meeting me at the limit of what I'm willing to do, and I have to be clear with myself about what that edge is. I've dropped that feeling of shame about being slower. At the end of the day, if we have vastly different approaches we can always figure out other ways to get together, or find other outdoor activities where we're more compatible.

After all, while I'm slow relative to some friends, for others I'm the push-yourself companion.

The ‘slow-your-roll’ friend

Finally, there is the friend that appreciates the outdoors in a completely different way from me. I'll never forget going on a walk with a birder friend. We were near Westchester Lagoon. She noted how people whizzed by on their bikes or ran by with their earbuds in, never stopping to observe all of the life going on around them.

She wondered out loud how people could fly by here every day and not notice the comings and goings of all of the birds. She was keenly aware of the species settling on the lagoon, the ducklings paddling behind their mom.

I had never noticed any of that before beyond thinking, "Hey, look at that swooping swarm of white birds careening around. Better speed up on my bike and be more like them!"

I am always exploring new ways to be outside, and like many things in life, friends help me experience more and push myself to try things. In Alaska, there's no shortage of activities or people who are passionate about what they do.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer, works in Anchorage and plays throughout Southcentral.

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