How I learned to love finishing last

Many runners are driven by a desire to cross the finish line as fast as possible, but in a sport that rewards speed, sometimes it’s healthier to be the tortoise than to be the hare. (Photo: NYTimes)
Many runners are driven by a desire to cross the finish line as fast as possible. I am driven by a desire to cross it before race organizers leave for the day.اضافة اعلان

I have cut it close. During the last few kilometers of the 2016 New York City Marathon, I was given what appeared to be my own police escort, as city workers disassembled the course behind me. Friends who had vowed to cheer me on abandoned their posts for dinner plans. The race was a highlight of my life, but I would be lying if I said I was thrilled to cross the finish line nearly last.

Like many people who choose to run marathons, I am a striver — I want to achieve, optimize, and impress. But in a culture that celebrates speed and power, there is little glory in being a straggler.

And yet, after hundreds of training kilometers and dozens of road races, I am learning to reconcile my tortoiselike pace with my desire to call myself an athlete. It’s best summed up by what Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal has coined the “persistence high” — a kind of physiological reward for not giving up.

The persistence high works like this: When we move at an easy to moderate pace — what McGonigal described to me as a “feels good” level of intensity — for at least 20 minutes, we often experience a flood of biochemicals called endocannabinoids that has long been identified as the “runner’s high”.
Slow runners who have larger bodies face additional challenges, as our culture has long equated lithe physiques with virtuous lifestyles.
Interestingly, some researchers have found that we do not experience this psychological effect if we run with maximum effort. Jogging at a manageable pace is what usually leads to that buzzy feeling that all is right in the world. “There’s no objective measure of performance you must achieve, no pace or distance you need to reach, that determines whether you experience an exercise-induced euphoria,” McGonigal wrote in her book “The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage.” The reward comes simply from staying the course.

The view from the way back
Fitness culture does not always make it easy for back-of-the-pack runners to persist. Running only became a leisure activity for the masses in the 1970s and it generally encouraged speed. “Historically, running wasn’t meant to be a hobby,” said Martinus Evans, an activity coach and creator of the Slow AF Run Club, a global community of more than 8,000 runners who embrace their pace. “I think that’s still baked in there.”

While the road racing community has gradually welcomed slow runners, we still face biases and obstacles. We trade stories of marathons that advertise a seven-hour time limit but start packing up water tables after six hours, or races that run out of finisher medals. “It’s very frustrating when you finish and they’ve already pulled up the finish line,” said Ruth Gursky, an attorney from the New York City borough of Queens who has run six marathons.

Slow runners who have larger bodies face additional challenges, as our culture has long equated lithe physiques with virtuous lifestyles. “People will be like, ‘You’re out of shape. You just need to try harder,’” said Kendra Dolton, a marathoner from the New York City borough of Brooklyn who supports size inclusivity in running. “You’re out there and you’re trying, but people are still judging that you’re too slow, or that you don’t look like what they think you should look like.”

Several studies suggest that when people feel judged for their weight, they are less likely to exercise in the first place. We also know that social stigma can cause stress, which can trigger a cascade of stress hormones — basically the opposite of a runner’s high.

The benefits of running at a ‘feels good’ pace
Usually, 1.6km takes me 13-1/2-minutes. In long races I often run much slower. I also run using the Galloway method, which strategically incorporates walk breaks. Founded by Olympic marathoner Jeff Galloway in the early 1970s, the run-walk-run method has been shown in some studies to decrease self-reported fatigue and muscle pain. For me, it has made running a joy.

Over the years I have learned that, like body acceptance, pace acceptance can come from shifting our focus from external metrics and others’ perceived judgments to how we actually feel in our own skin. As Evans of the Slow AF Run Club put it: “Pace acceptance is body acceptance, and body acceptance is pace acceptance.” When we compare ourselves to others, said Dr Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist in Denver who specializes in athlete mental health and performance, we set ourselves up to suffer. Instead, “the real psychological benefits come from enjoying what your body can do,” he said.

Beyond this, however, I have also learned that running with the back of the pack can cultivate a mental and physical grit that is valuable on its own. “A seven-hour marathon is going to require a great deal of mental fortitude,” Ross said. Perhaps even more, he added, than a three-hour one.

There are also physical benefits to running at a pace that doesn’t feel punishing, said Claire Bartholic, a coach based in Asheville, North Carolina, who has helped hundreds of people develop a running practice.

“The hardest thing I do as a coach is teach people to run slower,” she said, because it feels “counterintuitive.” Running with intensity might build muscle, but running at an easy pace — which is unique to every runner, she noted — does a better job of conditioning our heart and lungs and boosting our endurance.

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