Three weeks ago, I was up for my long 16-mile training run in preparation for the Ogden Marathon. The ladies I run with were both out of town, but I wasn't worried. I downloaded some good podcasts, mapped an interesting route and felt optimistic about my run.

Three-and-a-half hours later, I finished, walking the last mile mentally exhausted. I felt like crying.

"If today were the marathon, I'd still have 10 more miles to go!" I thought. "How can I run for that long?"

I was discouraged, but not diminished. My 18 mile training run was last Saturday and, with my girlfriends back in town, we ran it together.

Just three hours later, I finished, running to the end and feeling triumphant.

"Only eight more miles?! I can do this!" I thought. My two friends running alongside me and pushing me along made all the difference.

The best training change I've made while preparing for my first marathon has been running with friends. I thought running in a group wasn't for me.

"I can't talk and run!" I worried.

"How can I find a friend who runs my exact pace?" I thought.

"I'm so much better running alone ― just me and my iPod," I assured myself.

Not so. I can definitely talk when I run ― actually, it's called the "talk test" and it's a recommended pace training method. The fact that my two buddies run a little faster than me is OK ― it's been pushing me harder, and if I do need to take a brief walking break to keep up, no one minds. And, as proved with my arduous 16-mile solo run, I don't improve running alone. I actually run a lot worse. I move slower, I take unneeded walking breaks, I retreat to my iPod and I break down mentally. I can go alone for mid-week runs that don't exceed 10 miles, but beyond that, I love running with a partner.

I've found other irreplaceable benefits.

Running with a group has forced me to stick to a schedule. It's easy to hit snooze on the alarm at 5:45 a.m. when I'm running by myself. I can use the weather, the lack of sun or, "cough cough," an impending cold as my excuse. But if I'm meeting my running group that morning, you better believe I'm going to be on-time, rain or shine, sun or moon, cough or leg cramp.

Running with a group is easier. I do love the peace and quiet of running alone. But the miles seem to fly by with a group. One minute we're laughing about the antics of a neighbor, the next venting about a work project.

Running with a group is motivating. Increasing my pace is not a noticeable, painful burden but an exciting group task. I push pain aside. I've achieved goals I thought would take months for me to reach ― like running a half marathon in under two hours and running during a snowstorm.

The ladies I run with are the only people I could send an email to about a rough run and receive the answer "YOU can do this ― WE can do this" instead of "Then why torture yourself? Just quit!" We know each others' running quirks ― favorite sports drink, vitamin supplement or energy gels, favorite routes and favorite rituals.

It's turned a solitary workout into a team sport. It's made lonely distance running into a boot camp.

So ladies, I'll see you Saturday morning, and I know you won't mind my post-running ritual of removing my stinky shoes and socks after we're finished and slipping into a pair of sandals.