Memories from a Back of the Pack Runner
I’ve always been a back of the pack runner. I finish in the bottom 20% regularly. And while I’ve done my best to get faster, I seem to be perpetually slow. Always. (Another topic for another day). I have also been amongst the bottom 5% (or maybe the bottom 1% even), especially when I was starting out. In the super early days of this blog, I wrote a short post about my first 10k, the Chattahoochee Challenge 10k.
“It was great weather and a very pretty route along the river, flat except for one hill at 5 miles. I ran the whole thing in 1hrs 24min @ 13:32 pace and I felt great …. until after I finished. I walked up to receive my race swag and food and they were ALL OUT!! No bananas, no water, no bagel, NOTHING! I was upset (at having finished that late) and hungry; and still had to walk a mile to get to my car.”
I still vividly remember my thoughts as I walked back tired and hungry that day. I’d just run an entire 10k and was on a super high at something that I had never ever done before. And I was let down by the racing community who indirectly told me that being that slow was no good to even receive the water and banana.
I have since then raced where my turtle pace has been “fast”.
I have lined up at the start of a half marathon where another person sneered when I told them my predicted finish time.
There was a local small half marathon with a 3:00hr cut off. And I could count the number of people behind me, and it was heartening to see the volunteers stand up and cheer for each of us as we passed by.
I’ve also been slower than slow when I’ve been lapped by the full marathoners as I was finishing in my half marathon; or when I’ve had a 2 hour early start on a marathon.
Just last year I raced the Acworth Women’s Sprint triathlon where I was the last but one out of my age group in the swim. The bike and run improved, but not by much.
While I’ve completed 4 marathons along the way, I’ve also read books that don’t even deal with race plans for slower than 2:25 half marathons.
There have been faster finishers who have waited around to cheer the back of the packers for hours and faster finishers who are walking back with their loot as I’m running in and they hardly give a second glance to us determinedly gritting up.
Race Directors: you need to understand that slower runners pay the same fees that the faster runners do. You are at liberty to set a course limit. But once you do, treat all runners with the same respect and encourage the volunteers to do so. (Huge shoutout to the race director of the Locomotive Race Series here in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA. I’ve had a great time in all of his races even as the bottom 5% coming in.)
Faster Runners: The elitist snobbish attitude is kind of getting old. Pace is all relative and you are still slower than the olympic qualifiers. The running world would be a richer place if we all shared it happily. To those of you who stay back and cheer us on, you will never understand how that uplifts me. Runners (and triathletes) like you are the ones who encourage more people into the sport.
Volunteers: I know you’ve been standing around since 4:30am or so, sometimes even before the runners themselves were up. All you want to do is pack up and go home to relax. Try to hang around for a few more. The back of the packers may not exactly be the most graceful of runners, but you will see amazing examples of determination and camaraderie. And we appreciate you more than you could imagine.
Slower Runners: Running is all welcoming even if other people don’t see it that way. You rock on with your bad self and do whatever rocks your boat. Don’t let anyone else dim your sparkle. Yes, you may need to carry your own water sometimes (I always do. For the same reason). But you are doing what matters to you. Put in the effort to train and you are achieving something that means something to you.
Bottom line is, there are all sort of races (and race directors) and all sorts of runners. Yes, I feel an unspoken thrill when someone cheers me on and I feel desperate when I see others changed (and sometimes showered!!) and heading home. Yes, I will most likely always choose big races (with a few favorite exceptions) because I want the support. Yes, I am not exactly thrilled that I’m slow, but I’m still proud of the months of training I put in. Just like you. I’m running for myself and I always will.
Do you know what made me go back after that first 10k?
I had stopped at Starbucks to grab a bite and I ran into a friend. His eyes popped out when I told him that I had just finished a 10k. He told me that it was one of the most amazing things ever. After being so let down, it was hard to believe him, but he was so enthusiastic and vocal that I realized that I had done something bada$$ and I decided that I would continue to do so. Even with no bananas waiting for me.
Who knows, maybe one of these years, I will even go back and run the same race.
What prompted this post?
Recently there was an awesome blog post from Heather at Relentless Forward Commotion about being a back of the pack runner. She is a sub-2hr half marathon runner who found herself with the 3:00+ hour runners at Runners World’s Heartbreak Hill Half Marathon. The awesomeness of the post opened up discussion from Runners World, the organizers. And a great post by true back of the pack runners Patty, April and Amanda.
I’d love to hear your experiences as a runner – front of the pack, middle or back.