I read this post about the experience of being a “back of the pack” distance runner by Amy Morosini, and it’s been bothering me on many levels ever since. The idea that any race would withdraw course support before the advertised time limit is appalling from a safety standpoint, if not from the standpoint of respecting the competitors. It also disturbs me that by doing so, they discourage people from participating in the sport. If you know you can run within the advertised time, but maybe not within half that, would you sign up for a race knowing you might be out there alone, with no course markings or check points to make sure you get to the end? Maybe not. No sport thrives without bringing beginners into the fold every year, and any sport that abandons its “back of the pack” players is probably excluding beginners from participating.
I speak from experience as a “Back of the Pack”er myself. Running hasn’t always been my sport, and I’m almost a year into starting back up after decades away. I will probably never be a frontrunner- I’ve battled knee issues for as long as I can remember, as a swimmer and then later as a runner. But that’s fine- I can run my race at my pace. I always say, “I don’t need to finish first! I just need to finish fit.”
I remember being a little girl and loving the feeling of running. I enjoyed it so much and I can remember sprinting in the back yard shouting “MOMMY! LOOK AT ME! I AM SO FAST! LOOK AT ME RUNNING!” I have never known a small kid who didn’t love to run just so they could feel themselves moving fast. How and when do we start thinking that it’s not enough to do something for the joy of it? When do we lose the knowledge that going the distance is winning, regardless of who does it fastest?
Once I started school, I had the same experience so many of us have had. It was no longer about how good it felt to run, or how much fun it was. School is competitive, and we were all very concerned about who could run the fastest. Never was this more conspicuous than when we had to pick teams for things. Year after year, I was, no contest, the slowest kid in class. This was driven home by the teacher calling out our times on various running related tasks. As a result, week after week I was the last kid picked for any and every team. We had learned that the worst thing in the world you can do is lose, and nobody wanted a “back of the pack” runner in competitive sports.
Any sport has “levels.” A beginning runner may have the best time on the field, but more likely it’s going to be someone who has trained for years. A karateka doesn’t earn a black belt in the first month of training, regardless of talent. Even “small” competitions in any sport require preparation. Sometimes weeks. Sometimes months. Celebrating every competitor is not a celebration of “losing.” It’s a celebration of dedication. Even if I actually am the slowest land mammal on earth, (probably I’m not, right?) the weeks of sticking to my training schedule that have allowed me to finish a race- first, last, or anything in between- makes it impossible for me to be a “loser.” If we refuse to celebrate anyone who hasn’t made it to the very top level of a sport, then what is the point of having a sport at all? If only the best, most winningest person of all is worth admiring, then why train? Why study a subject to master it? Why experiment and invent a light bulb? Why not just skip to the end, cross the finish line, and scream, LOOK AT ME I’M THE WINNER? Because if the only thing of any value is getting there first of all, why play fair?
The reality of almost all organized sports activities is that there is some element of competition. Personally, I choose activities that make me feel good and good about myself, and I pursue them in whatever way motivates me to do them consistently. I like to participate in organized competitions because they present an opportunity to do something I like with other people who also like it, and, in some cases, an opportunity to learn more about myself or the sport, or both. Hand in hand with “competing” comes the idea of “winning.” I admire the way the competitive spirit propels some people to succeed, but the desire to be “a winner” can lead people to do some pretty miserable things. That’s why I want my kids (and all kids) to understand that “winning” doesn’t just mean being “first.” I want them to understand that the celebration of the first place runner isn’t because she got to the end first, but because we admire the dedication it took for her to train and prepare for the race that allowed her to finish so quickly.
To that end, I am delighted to celebrate the winner in any competition, but I think it’s also important that we celebrate everyone who participates. I’m going to pre-empt any and all discussion of “everyone gets a trophy is why we are raising a generation of LOSERS!” by pointing out that anyone who shows up ready to run a 5k, a 10k, or farther has already made an accomplishment. I’m not saying we should hand out back pats and tell everyone they are wonderful regardless of effort. (Although I personally think it would NOT be tragic if we all threw just a little gratuitous warmth into our interactions with fellow humans, that’s not the point here. I digress.) We can, and- dare I say SHOULD?- broaden the definition of the word “winner” in a way that doesn’t diminish the accomplishment of the top finishers in even the smallest degree.
I am currently training for my second 10k race. I will almost certainly never come in first in my age group, and I may have to find ways to deal with a lack of official support at some events, as described in Morosini’s article. But I am going to keep on going. I am going to keep shouting “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME RUNNING!” no matter how slowly I do it. If by doing that I manage to teach my kids and their friends that it’s okay to be the one who gets there in the end, as long as you get there? Then that’s cool with me. Because a back-of-the-pack runner who never quits is always going to beat someone with inherent talent who can’t be bothered to try.
The difference between a hopeless runner- or reader, fighter, swimmer, water polo player, garbage collector, or anything, really- and a successful one usually boils down to dedication and decent coaching. So yes, let’s encourage every athlete, on every race. Let’s cheer for all of them, in honor of the dedication that got them to the starting line. (See also: I Play Like A Girl.) Let’s run at the back of the pack, and make room in the pack for other people who want to love running. I run my next 10k on May 17. See you at the finish line, probably long after the “winner” crosses it- and I’ll be dancing, because I am winning MY race.
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