How I Learned to Love Finishing Last

How I Learned to Love Finishing Last

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 Brooklyn who supports size inclusivity in running. This can feel like a no-win situation, she said. “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.

I live in an average-sized body, but I’ve still questioned whether I am a real runner. When others whiz by me, I sometimes play mental games with myself — for all they know I’m recovering from knee surgery! (I’ve never had knee surgery.) When I talk about being a devoted runner, I always qualify it by saying that I’m slow — just in case the person I’m speaking to decides to look up my race times and call me out for being an imposter.

Other slow runners question their legitimacy, too. Some told me they avoid sharing their times on fitness tracking apps such as Strava, lest their friends discover their pace. “I know factually that my accomplishment and the work I put in is no less valuable than those that are running faster — it’s just different,” said Ms. Dolton. “But in my brain, I’m still like, but is it?”

I usually run about a 13-and-a-half-minute mile. In long races I often run much slower. I also run using the Galloway method, which strategically incorporates walk breaks. Founded by the Olympic marathoner Jeff Galloway in the early 1970s, his run-walk-run method has been shown in some studies to decrease self-reported fatigue and muscle pain. For me, it has also 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 Mr. 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,” Dr. Ross said. Perhaps even more, he added, than a three-hour one.

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