Stop Calling Yourself Slow!

“You wouldn’t want to run with me—I’m slow.”

Saying this is a terrific way to get me fired up. I don’t believe in slow runners. Slow is a comparative term, which means it’s automatically changeable based on the comparison. My friend Andy is slower than Mo Farah, but I don’t think Andy’s 8-minute-mile makes him a slow runner. (Yes, I work with words all day.) But the primary problems I have with this statement run deeper than just semantics.

The first problem I have with the concept of “slow runners” is that it’s hard to tell what anyone’s pace is in comparison to our own unless we’ve run with them for a decent amount of time, or seen what pace group they join at a sponsored or group run, and so it is really easy to insult someone by claiming to be a slow runner.

Imagine someone says to you, “You wouldn’t want to run with me—I’m slow.” So you say, “Oh yeah? What’s your pace?” And they respond with a pace that’s faster than yours. Bam! Instant shame. We judge ourselves harshly enough. Let’s not run the risk of judging others in casual conversation.

My second problem is that it puts the emphasis on speed as a barometer of how “good” we are at running.  Speed is determined by a million factors, only one of which is the effort someone puts in. My friend Laura can beat me in any race—not because she works harder—but because her body type is better suited to running, and because she eats cleaner and drinks less. I could do everything she does and get faster, but still probably not match her 8:30 pace. (Thanks, genetics.) Similarly, though I run slower than my friend Caroline in training, I tend to finish way before her at races—because we’ve only competed together at altitude, which my body handles better than hers does.

The third problem is that we, as a community, tend to ignore anyone who isn’t considered fast. “You wouldn’t want to run with me” is often a defensive statement. At my former running club, the track coach never understood why “slow” runners didn’t come out to practice. He told me, “everyone can benefit from track, but the most benefit comes to those running slower than a ten-minute-mile.” I couldn’t agree with him more. But as the slowest runner at those track workouts, I got left in the dust, figuratively and sometimes literally. I didn’t know where the warmup was in Golden Gate Park and got lost. I couldn’t finish the workout before all the rest of the club members, who ran sub-eight-minute-miles on normal runs, left.  Watching those runners literally leave the track before I was even halfway done with my speed workout made me feel inadequate. Being literally left behind made me feel shitty. I don’t blame runners who didn’t come back after that experience.

    “Slow” runners work just as hard, if not harder, than the front and middle of the pack do. Running a marathon at a thirteen-minute-mile pace can be harder than qualifying for Boston. You’re running for much longer—sometimes more than twice the time—and often the crowds are gone. Sometimes even the water stops have disappeared. At the San Francisco Marathon, there aren’t even fucking signs showing runners where to go after the traffic barricades are removed, so every year my husband and I stand on a street corner at Mile 22, giving directions and handing out water.

Finally, the biggest problem I have with the “slow runner” statement is that it assumes that I won’t want to run with YOU because it will slow my own pace. There are a million reasons to want to run with someone—to catch up, to build a friendship, to have company in what is often a solitary sport, or simply just to have fun. That’s not to say that it can’t be difficult to run at a slower pace, because it can. But it isn’t impossible. We need to stop this whole “I’m a slow runner” bullshit. We’re all “slow runners” compared to someone.

Instead, I’d like to suggest being honest and clear. Recently, a member of the Oiselle Volee posted in our regional group that she wanted someone to run with at Golden Gate Park. I was planning to go there for my long run, so I messaged her. That weekend I needed to do 16 miles, with a 3-minute run to 1-minute walk interval. Typically, that would mean I would be at an eleven or twelve minute pace.

Since most of the Volee I’ve met are fast and competitive, I told her what I planned to do before we arranged to meet up. She responded that the pace would be fine, but that she was recovering from being sick so it would be totally okay for me to leave her if she couldn’t make my pace. I appreciated her honesty because it allowed both of us to feel comfortable. We both knew what we were setting out to do, and what our limitations and goals were.

In the future, don’t assume someone can’t run with you solely because of speed. Often, the reason you ask to run together has nothing to do with performance.