Road races often have two police escorts: one at the front for elite runners and one at the back for those pulling up the rear. While it might be a thrill to run behind the first wave, the race doesn’t officially end until the last participants show up.
For Jill Grunenwald, author of Running with a Police Escort: Tales from the Back of the Pack, running slow isn’t necessarily the worst position to be in.
“No matter the race, there is always a last-place finisher. Even the Olympics have a last place finisher!” Grunenwald said. “All it really means is that on that particular day, at that particular race, I just happened to be the slowest person to show up. That’s it. Any other day, any other race, it could be a totally different story.”
Grunenwald, who started running for better health, accomplished an individual goal. But Andrea Michelcic has had a different experience. She’s always been at the back of the pack with close to a 10-minutes-per-mile pace, but wanted to run with other people to get motivated. She discovered South Brooklyn Running Club (SBRC) three years ago and never left. Like many others in the group, she came for the exercise but stayed for the social bonding. The club has a beginners class for those new to the sport or returning after a hiatus. Michelcic’s advice for slow runners: Don’t be intimated by big races. “I think anybody is capable,” she explained. “Yes, it’s a race. Yes, it’s competitive. But, it’s also an accomplishment.”
Related: Why Running Slow Doesn’t Matter
Unfortunately, faster runners are not always happy to share the road with their slower counterparts. In a Slate article published in 2006, one runner opined, “Big-city marathons these days feel more like circuses than races, with runners of variable skill levels—some outfitted in wacky costumes—crawling toward the finish line.” A Salon article from 2007 posed the same question: “Has this country’s marathoning spirit been trampled by hordes of joggers whose only goal is to stagger across the finish line?” And a New York Times article from 2009 quoted one long-time runner who said, “It’s a joke to run a marathon by walking every other mile or by finishing in six, seven, eight hours…there used to be a pride saying that you ran a marathon, but not anymore. Now it’s, ‘How low is the bar?’”
SBRC organizer Ben Carter pointed out there will always be someone better than you in any race. For fast runners who feel that slow runners don’t belong, he was quick to admonish them. “Compared to an Olympic runner, you’re not a real runner either,” Carter said.
Chris Twiggs, the chief training officer for the Jeff Galloway Running Club based in Florida with more than 80 locations nationwide, agreed with Carter that some runners have a bad attitude. There’s an advantage, however, to including slower runners. “You can thank all the slow people for the number of races we have to choose from,” Twiggs said. “The participation level has increased so those slow people give you more opportunities to run. If you don’t want slow runners bringing you down, stay at the front of the race.”
Julie Conley, who has run with Galloway’s club for the past eight years in Jacksonville Beach, doesn’t like that kind of defeatist attitude either. She has been timed at a 7:30 mile, but often chooses to run on Saturdays with the 12-minute milers. According to Conley, everyone belongs in the race.
“There is no such thing as ‘too slow,’” Conley remarked. “We all get the same runner’s high. It just takes one step, one mile. We’re completers, not competers.”
Twiggs noted that a lot of runners are not necessarily looking to get faster, just healthier. Running USA lists more than 30,400 race events in 2017—up 100 from the previous year—with the 5K seeing the biggest bump. Increased participation shows a trend: Finishing first is not the goal; getting as many races as possible under your belt is.
Related: Slow Runners Live Longer—Here’s Why
Running slow has its benefits at the finish line. In 2016, Barry Smyth, a computer scientist from the University of Dublin, conducted a study in his Running with Data series that showed marathon runners who ran their fastest leg first finished about 40 minutes slower than other runners. Smyth’s conclusion was to start slow and finish with a big push.
But what if you’re a slow runner who wants to be fast?
Aaron Adragna of Black Flag Running Club in San Diego uses a run/walk approach. He starts new runners with walking for four minutes and running for one. Gradually, the ratio starts to shift with longer running periods and shorter walking ones until walking is phased out entirely. A lot of trainers use the same principle. Twiggs mentioned Jeff Galloway, former Olympian and author of Galloway’s Book on Running, has a Run Walk Run philosophy in his club that’s been successful for decades.
Adragna was not surprised with Smyth’s findings that slower runners end with faster finishes. “It’s not uncommon for run/walkers to have a faster finish time,” he said. “A lot of runners let the fever of the race get the best of them. They go too fast and then get gassed.”
Dr. Rich Cimadoro of BodyFix runs the Thousand Oaks Pacers in California, helping train new and seasoned runners alike. Whether they’re slow or fast, his runners are often gearing up for a race. For those looking to increase their speed, he has a few suggestions:
- Strength train: add planks, Supermans, squats, hinges, pushups and lunges to your strengthening routine.
- “Baseball warmup”: Jog from the foul line to center field, walk back. After three to five repetitions, turn the jog into a run. Do no more than 10 total for new runners. Repeat twice each week.
- Technique: Stand tall, short stride, increase cadence. Don’t worry about how your foot lands (toes, mid, heel), focus on where your foot lands. Work on keeping your landing foot under your center mass, not ahead of you. Try to land on a soft knee, not locked.
Whatever your abilities, there are plenty of running clubs to fit your needs. The advantage to running with a club is the accountability involved: there’s an expectation that you will show up, because you committed to run at that time. Maybe you yearn to be zippy or maybe you just enjoy the camaraderie in the slow lane. Either way, you’ll get hooked.
“The running community cheers you on,” said Twiggs. “It’s addictive.”