This time two years ago, I was training for my first marathon and having a meltdown. The problem wasn't physical (although there were plenty of aches, pains and a stress fracture, oh joy), and I wasn't unduly stressed about the mammoth run I was about to undertake. No, the biggest thing upsetting me was a growing worry that I was drifting apart from my friends back home. It was then two years since I'd left Dublin to move to London, and while there'd been lots of trips back and visits from them in between, suddenly I felt they were becoming more distant.
It was something I'd feared would happen since the reality of emigrating hit me, belatedly, several months after the event. What had I done? Sure, I was having fun and making new friends, but in the process of flippantly deciding to up and leave after nine years in Dublin, had I jeopardised important relationships formed as 18-year-old freshers and strengthened through jobs, boyfriends and dodgy haircuts? And could any new friendships, however wonderful, compare with those I had with women I'd known since the days when we thought cargo pants and your 'good' hoody constituted a cool outfit? But I'd begun to feel that drifting apart was inevitable. Maybe they were tired of keeping up a long-distance friendship. It hurt, but I didn't blame them; it felt like something I'd have to accept as a consequence of leaving.
The day before the marathon, after an afternoon spent laying out my kit and trying not to hyperventilate with nerves, my boyfriend announced he was bringing me out to take my mind off things. I was too preoccupied to be curious, so I allowed myself to be led down the street and into our local pub. And there, inexplicably not in Dublin but somehow sitting in front of me, were seven of my friends who jumped up and cheered when they saw me. At least, that's what I'm told they did, the actual memory is a blur. I finally understood the literal meaning of the word 'speechless' and I repeatedly asked them what they were doing, convinced, in my dazed state, that they must be there for some unknown other reason. It took several minutes for them to assure me they'd come purely to see me. It turned out they'd been so quiet in the preceding months because they'd formed a splinter Whatsapp group for fear of letting the cat out of the bag, and were so excited about the big surprise they didn't trust themselves to talk to me much directly either.
I was utterly, completely over the moon and in shock that these women, whom I'd feared I was losing, would do all that for me at the very moment when it meant the most. On the day, they were the best cheer squad I could have hoped for, waving flags and banners and shouting loud enough for me to hear above the crowds. There's a picture of me beaming as I run past them at mile 17. People ask how I could possibly look so happy two thirds through a marathon with nine long miles still to go, but while my body was hurting, the sight of my friends who had made a massive effort to be there to cheer me on, lifted me so much that I was able to forget the aches, for a little while at least.
It was then that I realised how fiercely I wanted to make sure our friendships endured. And that it would take effort, not just from them, but from me. I couldn't just meekly sit by and hope they wouldn't forget me, I had to fight to keep them too. So I flew to Dubai to see a good friend who'd moved out there. When another close friend in Ireland got engaged, I booked a last-minute flight to celebrate with her. I've been home for thirtieth birthdays, hen parties and just-because visits. And I constantly try to remind myself that while Whatsapp groups are great, nothing beats a proper one-to-one catch-up.
Next month, one of the marathon surprisers, with whom I've shared lost summers, long-haul adventures and many, many bottles of wine, is getting married. I was so thrilled to be one of the first people she called when she got engaged, in that joy-filled bubble of time when just family and close friends are in on the secret. I hoped she'd ask me to be one of her bridesmaids, but reckoned that was a privilege I'd sacrificed by moving away - what use would I be to help plan a wedding from a different country? One night, weeks after I'd given up hope, she handed me a card that read 'I can't say I do without you' with the most heartfelt note inside. Turns out she'd wanted to ask for ages but was waiting for the perfect card she'd found online to be delivered. It was a gesture so thoughtful, so longed-for and so 100% 'her' (she's a massive stationery nerd), that I burst into tears with happiness and ordered an overpriced bottle of prosecco to celebrate.
I do still worry about the impact distance has on this and other relationships. My friends tell me I don't miss much, there are fewer nights out now, more mortgages and babies. I can't help longing for the little things - Friday-night drinks, walks, impromptu cinema trips. But then an excited email will pop into my inbox about some detail of hen-party planning, and I'll feel like we four bridesmaids could be in a room together, sharing in the excitement of celebrating our friend and her big day.
I'm lucky to have amazing friends, in London, Dublin and scattered all over the world. Each one of them is precious, the long-distance ones even more so because we've chosen to make the effort to remain close despite the obstacles. And not seeing each other as often as we'd like only makes the special moments more special. So when I stand beside my friend next month as she marries the love of her life, I'll feel extra lucky to be part of it. And I'll look forward to a lifetime of being there for the big occasions, the Whatsapp chats, the surprise visits and the excited email threads, to make sure our friendships go the distance.Suggest a correction