The Philly 10k on August 28th was my undoing. I usually feel nervous before an upcoming race but I had never previously so thoroughly questioned my ability to accomplish something. My last few pre-race runs were excruciating – my legs seemed to be directly wired to the anxious thoughts and refused to propel me forward at any comfortable pace. I was consumed by thoughts of my last-place finish in my May 5-miler. I was binge eating more in a week than I had in the previous 6 months.
The Philly 10k arrived. The day was hot and cloudless with bright morning sun and uncomfortable humidity. The crowd was massive and included one particular neanderthal who had seen fit to mercilessly bully me in the online forum for the Philly running community months before. I felt unhinged at the starting line by the queasiness that you get at the crest of a roller coaster – I am strapped in, we are climbing, climbing, climbing. There is not a damn thing that I can do about falling down this hill. I am not in control of this ride! I cannot control when it ends! Sure, I knew the race was 6.2 miles, but I couldn’t control how and when I would finish.
Dare I say it’s somewhat trendy to be a Back of the Pack (BOTP) runner these days? Running is an inclusive sport now. Anyone can do it anywhere. We are a group who is seemingly comfortable with our slowness, proudly emblazoning our turtle-pace on workout wear alongside caricatures of the plodding reptile. I even belong to a group with the tongue-in-cheek name “Too Fat to Run” because god knows that more than one ignoramus has seen me busting my butt on a trail and stopped me only to caution “you know, walking is great exercise, too. I started by walking. Maybe you should do that until your smaller”. Faster comrades throw out platitudes like “your race, your pace!” and”a mile is a mile no matter how fast you complete it”. Other well-meaning types will offer up ways to help you improve through speed training and fartlek workouts. Here’s the rub: why do I have to be faster? What’s wrong with running a 16 minute mile? Is there some rule that a sub-30 minute 5k is the ideal to which we should all aspire? You try lugging 277lbs for 5 miles and see how fast you are.
Sure, I could speed-walk and starve myself until I hit one-derland. A failed bariatric surgery procedure, though, has taught me that there are very few situations in life in which such misery is worth it. I would probably be a lot faster if I were lighter. If we consider the mechanics of the situation, it just takes a whole lot more energy and effort to move my body than it does certain other bodies. I am short, my thighs are roughly the width of whiskey barrels, I am carrying a fair amount of loose skin from the weight I have already lost, and I have a very, very short stride. There are caterpillars that have outpaced me on a trail. I am ok with this. Running and every other form of exercise I have attempted since re-branding myself an “athlete” is a triumph no matter how slow or uncoordinated I may appear. I wish other people would see it through the same lens.
So while being a BOTP runner may be all the rage, being at the tail-end of this pack certainly is not. I was so disappointed by the time I finished the Philly 10k that I cried from a mixture of sheer relief (that it was over and I had, indeed, survived) and frustration (because it felt like the race had shut down before I was done). I finished in under 2 hours and kept a pretty speedy (for me) sub-16min/mile pace. There were even 8 or 9 people still behind me when I finished!
(Detractors will refer to the 15 min/mile suggested pace as a reason for many of us to stay out of numerous races but they are assholes and I refuse to believe that races should only be for the sub-10min/mile folks). The water stations looked like ghost towns, littered with the crushed spectral remains of thousands of white paper cups, and several of them were shutting down as I passed through. The finish line was all but deserted save for my friends and a few volunteers. I was never given my Finisher’s Pendant (a friend of mine generously gave me his). Shake Shack ran out of the post-race ice cream treat and tried to offer me a coupon for free french fries instead. The reaction by many race directors to complaints from slower runners isn’t to improve their course support to better serve the BOTP. They will reference cut off times and simply insist that you be faster. This implies that only certain individuals should have the right to participate in certain races. I’m not interested in qualifying for the NYC Marathon, but it’s ridiculous that, given the breadth of the running community in 2016, people feel shut out of local races. I may never run a sub-15 min/mile race and that fact really deters me from signing up for distances greater than 5k.
I take great pride of the effort that I put forth and I am always exceedingly proud of myself for finishing any race but that pride does not exceed the dejection one feels over the lack of fanfare and course support provided for BOTP runners. I’ve heard of people finishing a race only to find the finish line dismantled or that there was nary a banana or water bottle left in site. I’ve heard of runners being swept along the course like discarded tissues by police or EMS vehicles. I’ve heard of people finishing on sidewalks because the course was re-opened to traffic before they had finished. These experiences are humiliating. The solution is not to tell someone to merely work on speed.
I’m not exactly sure what the solution is.
I recognize that race directors face a logistical nightmare when coordinating a race: hefty fees are incurred in order to shut down city streets for hours, EMS and police support need to be secured, volunteers are required to man water stations and control flow, medical staff need to be employed to support EMS, etc. Accommodating paces approaching 20 min/mile compromises all manner of functions in a city like Philadelphia. The Philly 10k route required more support than other races of the same distance because it has runners wind through numerous residential and commercial corridors of the city whereas popular routes like Martin Luther King Drive are already closed for recreational activity during that time of year. I get it, it’s a headache. It’s still unconscionable that BOTP finishers miss out on the same post-race perks as earlier finishers. No one should finish running many miles and have to ask “so, where can I find my medal?”
I likely will not register for the Philly 10k in the future (I mean, let’s get real – racing in the height of the summer heat is not pleasant). Moreover, it’s October and they still haven’t responded to my race survey responses about not receiving my pennant. I’ll focus on better researching my races and registering for ones that likely also support walkers. Maybe that means I’ll be sticking with 5k’s for a while. My next race is the Perfect 10 Miler in New Jersey. I have heard many positive things about this race regarding atmosphere, course support, runner camaraderie, etc. It is an all-women’s race which I think might be an atmosphere that will help ease some of my pre-race anxiety. They also offer the option of running the 10 miles as a relay with a “bosom buddy” which means a greater variety of individuals can participate.
After that, I look forward to getting back to running for myself and not because I have to train for a race. This kind of running (and a good antidepressant) is the best for my mental health and well being. Sometimes it’s just nice to get back to basics, to not have to worry about where you fall in the “pack”.