Why It's OK to Be the Slowest Runner in the Race


I was in no danger of being in top physical condition this past winter. My husband and I visited family in California a week before Christmas and made ourselves very much at home in my mother’s well-stocked kitchen. When we got back to New York, house guests and parties kept me munching and toasting and far away from the gym for the rest of 2015.

My running shoes and I got back together in January. If my goal had been to gradually reverse the effect of all of those holiday cheese trays, those first short workouts would have been a lovely start. Alas, I was due to run a half-marathon—in February. I hadn’t even thought about a formal training schedule, and hadn’t attempted a long run since Thanksgiving. Then, a week before the race, I came down with one of those vile, phlegmy colds that makes you feel like a swamp on legs.

I tried to find a way to wriggle out of my commitment, but winter event organizers aren’t fools. They don’t offer refunds for runners who decide to curl up with a warm faux fur blanket and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels instead of venturing out on long, cold jogs. “You could just eat the registration fee and stay home,” my sister suggested. “No judgment.” The proposition was tempting; I had yet to read Book 4 of Ferrante’s quartet. My cough remained nasty. Above all, it was clear that if I attempted the run, I was going to clock my worst time ever. Why bother?

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Just. Finish.

I decided to approach the half marathon one mind trick at a time. I picked up my bib and souvenir shirt, hoping they would guilt me into participating. Then I added to the psychological layer cake with a Facebook post about the run, so that my friends, former coworkers, and new pals from all of those holiday parties knew about it. Finally, I made myself a bare-bones promise: I’ll show up at the starting line and I’ll get to the damn finish. The commitment was the win, right?

But a part of me felt like that’s just what losers say. Fitness is supposed to be about self-improvement: We’re told that we have to challenge ourselves to see results, that we have to push past comfort if we want to grow stronger (endurance athletes talk about “hitting the wall,” and getting past it, as a key part of their training), that competition makes us better.

Back when I ran my very first half marathon a year ago, the volunteer who looped a medal around my neck at the finish line muttered these inspirational words: “Everybody gets one.” Hey, thanks, man! I felt like a kindergartener at an end-of-the-soccer-season pizza party with trophies for all: “Most Punctual,” “Best Scrunchie,” and so on. I'd hoped never to feel that way again, but it looked like I was headed there anyway.

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The tortoise and the…other tortoises

On the morning of my race, I missed the bus to the subway, chose the wrong train to the course, and got a bit lost on my way to the starting line (here’s to you, lingering head cold!). I asked a volunteer in a fluorescent vest if I was headed in the right direction. “No, they started two blocks behind you,” he said. “About ten minutes ago.” By the time I reached what looked like the timing mat, it appeared to have been disconnected. Oh, boy. My run was going to be a serious dance-like-no-one-is-watching act of personal growth.

Over the course of the next two hours, I caught up with a few pairs of runners who had clearly been taking frequent and leisurely Gatorade breaks. I passed others who were lined up outside porta-potties. I passed race-walkers and regular walkers. You could say I maintained a steady jog, depending on how loosely you define ‘steady’ and ‘jog.’ I fought the occasional pang of longing for the giant, identity-concealing cat-eye sunglasses I'd made a last-minute decision to leave at home.

I focused instead on the birdsong spilling from the trees along the course—Central Park is a glorious place to be at the end of the winter—and let it drown out the siren call of race-walking. The sensor at the finish line was still working, and another volunteer at the PA system called my name as I hit the mat. “LAUREN OH-STER!” Relief mingled with a sense of down-and-dirty pride. I suspected I'd just run my slowest race, but I was sure I'd set a personal record for Phlegm Carried Across the Finish Line. I grabbed a tissue and blew my nose with a flourish.

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“The Little Fail Snail That Could”

A man and his daughter joined me on the platform as I waited for a train to take me back downtown to my apartment. He looked down at the bib still pinned to my vest: “There was a race today?” “Yeah,” I replied, “a half-marathon.” “You just ran a half-marathon? You don’t even look winded!” He nudged his little girl. “She just ran thirteen miles!” Her eyes widened, and I did my best to look like an off-duty superhero.

If winning (or even dramatic, Hollywood-movie-training-montage-style improvement) are the only things that matter, running has the potential to be a terribly disappointing hobby. I signed up for my first race in my mid-thirties, which happens to be when elite runners’ race times start to creep up for good, due to decreases in muscle mass, flexibility, and oxygen uptake as they age. I’m an extremely amateur recreational runner, of course, but it’s sobering to think that no matter how hard I train, Father Time will be jogging at my side.

A workout buddy of mine developed shin splints after training too hard, and she found them so disturbing that she quit running for good. Another friend, my marathon-loving college roommate, is coming back to running after giving birth to her son last summer. Her first race will be a humble neighborhood 5K, chosen because it was the last one she ran before having her baby—and because she can run it with him in a jog stroller.

Yet bowing my head to accept my latest participant’s medal—everyone gets one, you know—was still immensely satisfying. On a superficial level, I love shiny things: I’m looking forward to accumulating so many that I can wear them all at once and look like Mr. T. I Instagrammed this one with the caption "The Little Fail Snail That Could."

But that medal is also a reminder that everyone who shows up at a starting line has confronted reasons for staying home—we all have them—and decided to haul them down the road. Not all of us run because we’re fast; some of us run because we’re stubborn. And yeah. The commitment is the win.