As I drove the 35-mile trek to Waterfall Glen, I realized it would make a good opening scene for a slasher film. I was heading to a heavily wooded park, far from the city, so I could run on an unpaved trail with a man I'd met on Twitter. I could see the headline in my mind: "Middle-Aged Woman Murdered as a Result of Being Stupid on Social Media."
When I looked at it objectively, I had to concede that I didn't really know Dan, not "in real life." If I passed him on the street, I doubt I'd recognize him. But we chatted online daily and I read his blog, so I was pretty sure he wasn't a criminal. We were both part of a large amorphous group of runners who lived in the Chicago area and followed each other on Twitter.
While I didn't know much about his background, I knew he was training for a marathon and wanted someone to join him for a long run. I was also getting ready for a race and needed to cover some miles. It made sense to team up. Besides, I'd met other strangers from Twitter and hadn't been stabbed or robbed. Yet.
I originally joined Twitter on a wave of confidence after conquering Facebook. But while Facebook is like going to a high school reunion full of friends and acquaintances, Twitter is like crashing a huge cocktail party full of strangers. How was I supposed to sift through the noise?
A "Twitter Tip" told me I could search people's bios for mutual interests. "Hmm," I thought, "I like to run." So I began to follow some runners. As a newcomer to Chicago, I honed in on people in my adopted city. There was no shortage of local runners on Twitter, and they were a chatty bunch. From posts about their daily runs to construction updates on the Lake Front Trail to links for area races, they were a wealth of information. Having spent months hitting the pavement alone, I was happy to find a community of runners, even a virtual one.
Just like socializing in real life, interacting on Twitter is replete with angst. At first, I felt like the new girl sitting at the cool kids' table in the cafeteria, wanting to be included but afraid of saying anything cringe-worthy. Fortunately, the back-and-forth nature of the medium made it easy to jump in.
When people posted about their runs on rainy mornings, I commiserated about the weather. When someone asked about what brand of headphones to buy, I shared my opinions. Over time, I lurked less and interacted more until chatting with runners on Twitter became part of my daily routine. For the most part we talked about our workouts, but we also tweeted about music, current events, TV shows or other random topics.
Since many of us lived in close proximity, we frequently did the same races, and it was just a matter of time before someone proposed getting together at a race. "Hey, if you're doing the Hot Chocolate 5K this weekend, meet at gear check before the race," one runner posted. Sure enough, there we were on race morning, introducing ourselves by name and Twitter handle.
Granted, there was some uncomfortable silence, but it was easy to break the ice: "Has anyone done this race before? What's the course like?" We stood around for a few minutes making small talk until it was time to head to the start line.
And so began a habit of "tweeting up" with people at races. Thanks to these informal, loosely planned gatherings, running started to feel less like a solitary endeavor and more like a group activity. No matter what race I did, there was usually someone I knew from Twitter there. Meeting up became the new normal, which is how I found myself going to run with Dan that morning.
But this was different. It wasn't five or ten people gathering for a few minutes at a large public event. It was just us. In the middle of nowhere. Running together for two hours. It had seemed like a good idea when I was sitting behind the impersonal barrier of my laptop, but now I wasn't so sure.
Truth be told, I was less worried about physical safety than I was about social awkwardness. What would we talk about? Making quips and jokes in 140 characters was easy compared to engaging in actual conversation. Maybe this "tweet up" was a bad idea. What if we had nothing in common? What if he was boring? Worse, what if I was? Most importantly, would I even recognize Dan when I got there?
As soon as I pulled in the parking lot, though, I spotted him. He was dressed in full running garb with compression socks, hydration belt and neon jacket. A runner dork, just like me. We hit the trail and soon discovered we had plenty of things to chat about. We knocked out the miles while we swapped tales of past marathon failures, shared stories about our kids, and of course, traded Twitter gossip: "Do you follow so-and-so? Did you see his post about such-and-such?" Just like real life.
When we finally got back to the parking lot, we cooled down and made plans to run again the following week. We then said our goodbyes. As I waited for my car to warm up, l logged on to Twitter to post about the run. Dan had already beaten me to the punch, with a tweet thanking me for joining him. I tucked my phone in my bag, grabbed a sip of water and began my drive back home.