Unless You are in the Lead the View Never Changes…

Duck Family

…or does it?

A few weeks ago, Sandy and I participated in a Global Running Day event with Fleet Feet Sports in Wichita, KS. (Check out more about The Big Run) Since this was definitely a just for fun run for us, we were taking it easy and having a blast with our friends at the back of the pack. This gave me plenty of time to reflect and also make some observations about just how running at the back of the pack changes (enhances?) the race experience. These are my thoughts, and I encourage you to add your own observations and experiences in the comments section below.

I think it’s safe to say that back of the pack runners have a different experience on race day. Positive or negative, we slower folks experience or have to deal with things a faster runner may never run across (pun intended). Since I am a bad news first kinda guy, I’ll start with some of the more negative things I have noticed and/or experienced.

  • Aid Stations – I’ve found that my aid station experience may vary, depending on how far back in the pack I am. Granted, if I am running behind the official cutoff time for the race, I expect the support to be hit or miss. I do not, however, expect to be forced to finish a race totally unsupported if I am within the cutoff time. Luckily I have never had to deal with this personally, but I have spoken to others who have had this experience. To those race organizers, I say, “shame on you!” If promised, support should be available for EVERY runner that crosses the finish line within the time allowed. On the flip side, I have heard stories of volunteers staying past the cutoff time, to support runners who are still fighting to finish the race. Big kudos to these folks!
  • Post-race Festivities – I have finished a few races in let’s say the back third of the pack (easily ahead of the cutoff), only to find a pretty much wrapped up finish line party. Other times, there has been sufficient party-ness to accommodate even the last person to cross the finish line (This is a common point I discuss in my event recaps and reviews). I understand that a lot of estimating goes on in race planning, BUT I also feel that everyone who beats your designated cutoff time should have access to the same perks as the first runner to cross the finish line. Did we not all pay the same entry fee?
  • Course changes/obstacles – I have not had this experience personally (aside from the gauntlet of cups an GU packs), but since a few running buddies have commented on this, I thought it would be good to mention this here. Running a course that at least 50% of the field has already been through in front of you can be tricky. There can be an amazing amount of litter on the course, GU packs, Cups… discarded clothing. This doesn’t seem like a big deal until you have stepped on a GU pack on a wet road… I hear it can be an upending experience. Of course, there is always the chance of barricades, tables, etc being moved in anticipation of post-race cleanup.

Sounds like a drag huh? Let’s not pass judgment just yet. There are plenty of positive elements to back of the pack running. Here are a few that I have noticed.

A great photo of downtown Des Moines that I had time to take during the 2018 Dam to Dam race.
A great photo of downtown Des Moines that I had time to take during the 2018 Dam to Dam race.
  • Camaraderie – Runners are for the most part an awesome group of folks. A great sense of camaraderie exists no matter where you start, or where you finish the race. However, back of the pack runners take that a step further… somehow there is an extra level of “we are in this together” that is absent up in front. Kind words are not just lip service, high fives feel like they come from the heart. It’s a feeling that somehow defies description… if you have experienced it you know what I mean.
  • Competitiveness – We are all competitive in our own ways, and I am not saying slow runners lack a competitive spirit. Quite the contrary. I for one am driven daily by my own inner competition. In the back, we are all just striving to beat our own personal goals, and not necessarily anyone around us. Ok, except for maybe the old guy running in jeans and work boots… I am NOT finishing behind that guy!
  • Clear Course – Aside from the obstacles mentioned above, those of us in the back usually get to enjoy a much more open course after the first few miles. Most of us are moving at similar paces, and Sandy and I have even synced up with other runners doing similar intervals.
  • Conversation – Ever try making a friend at a 6min/mile pace? Probably not gonna happen. But I have had some awesome conversations/exchanges with folks on the course (runners and spectators) that I would have missed had I blown by. I’ve shared laughs, encouragement, even tears.
  • Scenery/Photo Ops – Many times I’ve seen really cool things along race courses. One example is the photo above. No, it doesn’t make me a better runner, but it does give me something to remember about this race, that’s NOT my insanely slow 44:30 5k.
  • Victories – No, not the kind that land you on a podium.  Victories that come with each stride. Victories for being better than yesterday. Victories for finishing what you started.
Sandy finishing the Sunshine Run 2018
Another perk of running near the back of the pack? Great finish line photos!

No, back of the pack running is not all bad. I would even venture to say that we slower folks experience everything the front-runners do, and then some. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against folks who have the ability to go faster. I applaud you! I work to get faster every day. Someday I may even break into the top 3rd of my age group. But even then, I will still pick a race every now and then to just take it slow and stop to take a duck picture.

A final thought: Yeah, I am slow… some would say hopelessly so. Others might question why I am even out there. But I AM out there. Not to win any races, not to break any records (other than maybe a PR or two)… I am out there for my health, to be better than yesterday, and for the pride that comes with saying I finished! So no matter where you start, or where you finish, just get out there and enjoy the experience!