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“Too Slow” for What?

slowisthenewfastLast night I was at a party and got to talking about running with a former runner. He said that he used to do 10K in about 30 minutes.  30 MINUTES!? My mind did the quick math — at his prime, he was more than twice as fast as I am.  If I can achieve my goal of a sub-65 minute 10K in 2014, I’ll be pretty darn thrilled.  Once again, the refrain ran in my head: “I’m so slow.” Nevermind that according to Wikipedia that fastest recorded times by elite women are between 30-32 minutes.

Sam always bugs me (or rather, interrogates me–in a friendly way, not with spotlights or anything like that) about my self-image as a “slow runner.” I’ve often cited this as my reason for hesitating to join a running group.

So it was kind of gratifying to read this article by running coach, Jeff Gaudette, who says I’m not alone:

When I first started working with age group and recreational runners in 2006, one of the biggest surprises to me was the amount of negative thinking and lack of self-confidence many runners exhibited. Almost every runner that joined the group introduced themselves to me by stating “I’m probably the slowest person you’ve ever coached” or “you probably don’t work with runners as slow as I am.”

It didn’t matter what their personal bests actually were, almost all conversations started in a similar manner.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that not much has changed in the last seven years. Many runners, both new and experienced, hesitate to join local running groups or participate in online communities. When asked why, most respond that they are embarrassed by how slow they are.

That’s strong–to feel embarrassed by how slow we are.  But it’s exactly how it feels. There is something like a feeling of shame that comes up when I think about being a slow poke.  I felt it when I was riding my bike with Sam and her friends–they were always waiting for me.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course–they’re seasoned riders. I was out on my second long-ish ride ever.  [ride report here in this post about suffering]

I think this is an important topic because it comes up in all sorts of areas where we track speed.  I felt the same thing when I started swimming with a group.  The feeling that I am slow — or too slow, to be precise — was so strong that the first time the coach suggested I train in the next fastest lane to the one I’d been training in I refused.

Gaudette makes a number of good points about the “I’m so slow” mindset. First off, it’s quite negative to the people who have it.  Very few people embrace it. Rather, they (like me) lament it and feel badly about it.  In some cases, it’s enough to dissuade them entirely.

Responding to this, I’ve seen a host of t-shirts and mugs and so on that say things like “No matter how slow you go, you’re still lapping everyone on the couch” and “There is no such thing as a slow runner. There are just runners and everyone else.”  I’m not totally convinced. It’s just a fact that some people are faster than others.

The question is: does this matter?

Having established that I’m not trying out for the Canadian Olympic team or anything like that, why should I care about how fast I am in comparison to other people?  So the idea of being “too slow” makes me wonder, “too slow for what?” I’ve written about participating even if you know you’re not going to win here.  And Sam has posted about age group medals here.

Of course, there are those naysayers who complain about the way age-group categories and more diverse participation has taken the mystique out of marathons. A New York Times headline asks: “Plodders have a place, but is it in a marathon?” The article reports that there is indeed a lot of judgment out there about slower runners. And that’s because there are lots of them:

Trends show that marathon finishers are getting slower and slower — and more prevalent — according to Running USA, a nonprofit organization that tracks trends in distance running. From 1980 to 2008, the number of marathon finishers in the United States increased to 425,000 from 143,000.

In 1980, the median finishing time for male runners in United States marathons was 3 hours 32 minutes 17 seconds, a pace of about eight minutes per mile. In 2008, the median finishing time was 4:16, a pace of 9:46. For women, that time in 1980 was 4:03:39. Last year, it was 4:43:32.

But back to Gaudette, who says that this fear of being slow plagues even faster runners:

Former professional runner Ryan Warrenburg recently discussed how he’s hesitant to call himself an “elite” runner. Ryan has run 13:43 for a 5k — I’d call that fast and worthy of elite status. Do you know where his time ranks him in the world? I don’t because it’s way outside the top 500 (sorry, Ryan).

One way around it is to do as, according to this article about “The Slowest Generation,” the younger generation does: thumb your nose at the whole idea that speed matters.

But instead of fighting back, the young increasingly are thumbing their nose at the very concept of racing. Among some, it simply isn’t cool, an idea hilariously illustrated in a 2007 YouTube Video called the Hipster Olympics. In those Games, contestants do anything to avoid crossing the finish line—drink beer, lounge in the grass, surf the Web.

Yet something remotely akin to that is happening. Perhaps the fastest-growing endurance event in the country, the Color Run, doesn’t time participants or post results. “Less about your 10-minute mile and more about having the time of your life, The Color Run is a five-kilometer, un-timed race,” says its website.

I think there is a happy medium between not caring about speed at all, and thinking that being among the average or slower runners is something to feel embarrassed about.  When I first started running, I really didn’t care about getting faster at all.  But now, I like to see increases in my average times as signs of progress.  I’m balancing increases in distance with increases in my various paces.  My slower runs aren’t quite as slow as they used to be. My faster intervals are stepping up compared to where they were a year ago.

In my swim training, over the 3 months of group training with a coach, I shaved 10 seconds from my 200 metre time. To me, that felt pretty good.  In fact, I felt great about it. Then one day we did a relay and I had other team members who are considerably faster.  For a moment, I allowed that to discount my accomplishment. But then one of them complained about her leg of the relay.  So yes, as Gaudette says, it’s all about your point of reference.

I like to keep my point of reference focused on me. I’m not too slow to do what I enjoy doing. And in fact, despite that I’m getting older, there’s still room for me to get faster and achieve new personal bests.

And as I said in my “Never Say Never” post, maybe I can lose the “I’m so slow” identity.  The best way for me to do that is to press myself on the question, “too slow for what?”  I remember last summer when I began running with a group. I thought for sure I would be the slowest in the pack.  I was shocked to discover I wasn’t. And did I judge anyone slower than me negatively for being slower?  Of course not.

If the worry that you’re “too slow” is holding you back from running with a group (or running at all), I recommend that you give it a try. Chances are very good that you won’t be alone at your pace.  And if you have any aspirations for running faster, training with a group is a good way to go.

Good luck meeting your 2014 goals!

12 thoughts on ““Too Slow” for What?

  1. Lots of good reminders in here. I especially connected with the reminder to use yourself as a point of reference. I am trying to get my thoughts together on that when it comes to doing a whole bunch of activities, meaning I’ll probably never be the best at any one of them. Comparison really can be the thief of all joy! Happy New Year!!

  2. Your discussion reminds me of the people in the Warrior Dash who ran back to do some of the obstacles again! Clearly not a race!

    Great post.

  3. I always felt that effort mattered more than speed, which is fortuitous as I’m just hitting the point where I can do 5 sets of slow 1:1 jogging intervals. But, those intervals I do are hard work for me, compared to the almost twice as fast and much longer intervals some of my gym friends can do with barely a drop of sweat. Sure, I would never be able to keep up with them, but I’m still working harder and working towards improving, and that’s a lot more important than being the fastest.

  4. Interesting about the hipster olympics. I wasn’t aware of it. As some of us may know there are different cycling subcultures in the world. Some cycling folks are more overtly anti-lycra cycling gear, etc. And make a point of not wearing a helmet.

    In latching upon our favourite sport, some of us go through various stages. There maybe a point a cyclist goes through years of monitoring their cycling cadence, speed and distance. Like I did for the first few years and kept a daily cycling journal.

    Then I eventually let go of my cyclometer. I’m less concerned about my time and cadence. I have general interest in my cycling distance. Hence, do know routes that I do and their length. That’s my vague benchmark and drives the amount of time I schedule/set aside in a day for cycling (which is often combined with utilitarian activities of work-commuting, shopping, etc. But not always.)

    Becoming overly focused on your performance against other people’s can suck the pleasure of the sport/exercise for yourself. Let’s face it: We all age, we get sick…. so for my long term mental balance, I’d rather just cycle as much as I can and as often as I can.

    And not really measure myself against others. Sure remain strong enough so that I can participate in a group ride. I already benchmark myself, in my career, paid job..for decades. I already do this in managing finances, so many other expectations/deadlines we must meet in other life facets.

    There are a number of experienced women cyclists with road / racing bikes, that move into this phase after initial euphoria, then stress (because they can’t remain tops), by not overfocusing on their cycling performance metrics.

    By the way, I am not the cyclist cycling in her high heels, leather long coat, business skirt suit, etc.

  5. On the feminist side of things you also get the never admit you are fast thing. When looking for someone to run with its hard to find someone at your pace because everyone says they are slow. Part of that is that we all started at different levels and we think of slow as being our slow not an absolute but part is the same logic as everyone saying they are fat, etc.

  6. Sceptically, I wonder if the runner you were speaking to was entirely honest. If he was, he’d know just how good that time was, and would have been very much more precise, especially to a fellow runner. “About 30 minutes” sounds like something a non-runner picking a time out of the air might say.

  7. One of the things I’ve found most interesting about getting faster is how much of it is psychological. I mean, obviously you do speed training and all that, but speed work doesn’t mean much if you don’t believe you are capable of being faster. At least this was the case for me. It was only in the past couple of years that I decided to legitimately see what I was capable of that I found myself posting times that were previously unthinkable. I’m sure that there are physiological reasons why I can run quite fast these days (VO2 max, stride length, weight, whatever) but the big breakthrough came when I simply believed I could.

    I am reluctant to use the word “fast” to describe myself because I know that there are a lot of people out there who are a lot faster than I am, and that while some people would look at me and go “she’s fast!” there are others (like, say, the assholes at LetsRun) who would say I’m just a middle-of-the-pack hobby jogger. The problem is that “fast” and “slow” are words that really mostly make sense in relation to OTHER people, and for all but a tiny handful of us, there are always people who are faster, no matter where we fall in the bell curve of speed. It’s hard to divorce that from our perception of ourselves, especially in a competitive context.

    All that said, speed is just one value by which the merit of all of these things are judged. At some point we all hit our plateaus and then we all slow down, and if we don’t have some other reason to keep doing what we’re doing, we’ll lose the enjoyment of our chosen sport. I’ve seen this happen a lot with really accomplished runners, as they lose their love for the sport once they find they can’t PR the way they once did, and I’d like to keep that from happening to me.

  8. Re: the stuff about marathoning and the colour run I find it hilarious that we live in a world where bemoan our sedentary lifestyles while simultaneously turning up our nose at things that make fitness more accessible.

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