Finishing last: ‘I am learning to reconcile my tortoise-like pace with my desire to call myself an athlete’

While the road racing community has gradually welcomed slow runners, we still face biases and obstacles

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 organisers leave for the day.

I’ve cut it close. During the last few miles 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, optimise and impress. But in a culture that celebrates speed and power, there’s little glory in being a straggler.

And yet, after hundreds of training miles and dozens of road races, I am learning to reconcile my tortoise-like pace with my desire to call myself an athlete. It’s best summed up by what 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”.

Interestingly, some researchers have found that we don’t 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 doesn’t 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,” says 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,” says Ruth Gursky, 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,’” says Kendra Dolton, a marathoner. “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.

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 not less valuable than those that are running faster — it’s just different,” Dolton says. “But in my brain, I’m still like, but is it?

The benefits of running at a ‘feels good’ pace

I usually run about a 13½ minute mile (roughly 8½ minutes per kilometre). 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 puts it: “Pace acceptance is body acceptance, and body acceptance is pace acceptance.”

When we compare ourselves to others, says Dr Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist who specialises 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”.

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 says. Perhaps even more, he adds, than a three-hour one.

There are also physical benefits to running at a pace that doesn’t feel punishing, says 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 says, because it feels “counterintuitive”. Running with intensity might build muscle, but running at an easy pace — which is unique to every runner, she says — does a better job of conditioning our heart and lungs and boosting our endurance.

When we run more intensely, we’re more likely to hit our aerobic limit: the moment when our body essentially runs out of oxygen and begins converting energy sources within our muscles into fuel, which leads us to fatigue more quickly, Bartholic says.

Exercise scientists suggest running at a “conversational” pace — one at which you can run and talk without feeling winded. The other benefit of the talk test is the talk itself. Jogging and conversing with others forms community — and social bonding releases even more endocannabinoids.

These days, I run most races with my 74-year-old father, who often slows down for me. Dad has always been my greatest running champion — he was running by my side when I completed that New York City Marathon after the sun set and the spectators went home — and one of the greatest gifts he has given me both on and off the course is continually telling me that I’m an athlete. Making peace with my pace allowed me to believe him. — This article originally appeared in the New York Times

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