The Perks of Being a Back of the Pack Runner

Even on a good day, I can feel self-conscious about my pace. I tend to identify as a “jogger” for fear that the term “runner” would be an inaccurate portrayal of my ability. As for any sport, there is inevitably a gradient in the ability of participants. I don’t like the connotation of the word “slow,” but I am certainly on that side of the running-speed spectrum. When seeing the times on my friends’ Strava accounts gets me down, I remind myself that there are perks of being a back-of-the-pack runner. This applies to those of us that are “full-time” lower-speed runners as well as you speedsters that kick it into low-gear to join us on occasion.

We are grateful to be outside (and be together).

In August I joined a group of women at the Trail Sisters Retreat in Boulder for some socially distanced trail running. I worried I might be “too slow” to keep up with people who are “real runners,” but pushed down my self-doubt when I saw in the description that this was an event for all abilities and speeds. Once at the retreat, Trail Sisters founder Gina further soothed my anxiety with her “no-drop” policy, meaning we would all stay together for runs. Gina explained that she would pilot the more up-tempo group and that her co-leader Sarah would accompany the “caboose” group. This way there was coverage throughout the pace spectrum.

On the first evening, we went for a shorter “shake out” run on the Boulder Creek Path. At first, it seemed that my pace was comparable and I was moving with the pack. Gradually, a divide grew between us and the rest of the group; leaving just Sarah and myself holding up the back. Those same self-doubting worries rushed back into my mind, “have I made a big mistake by signing up for this? I am not fast enough to run with these speedy gals.”

As the weekend progressed, our two-woman pack grew. After a few tumbles and minor injuries, some of the ladies that came out of the gates with speed were now traveling at my slower pace. The energy of our small group was something magical to me, the support we showed one another was a clear distinction from the Garmin-focused and time-obsessed type of running many of us can be guilty of (although this was certainly not the spirit of the retreat!)

When the only goal is to finish quickly, the opportunity to be present in the moment is lost. Us back-of-the-pack Trail Sisters are not going to compare our paces to you and make the run a competition, we are enthusiastic just to be on the trail with you.

We stop to smell the flowers… and the wildlife.

When the focus is on the journey rather than the destination, fun can be prioritized. This can mean many things, from stopping to take goofy trail photos, to spontaneously checking out a side trail you have never been on. At the Trail Sisters Retreat, a few of us crossed paths with a small bear, doing its bear thing. While wildlife interaction can be dangerous, it was a gift to be reminded of the critters we share the trails with. I believe that slower runners have more time to notice the small wonders of nature that could be missed by a faster person.

We celebrate small victories.

When the only metric for running success is pace, we lose the nuances of different strengths within the sport. I am not the fastest runner, but I go at a pace that is sustainable for the kind of mileage that would make my sprinting peers shake in their sneakers. It seems unlikely that I will ever make a podium in a running race, so I create my own “podiums” where I set challenging but achievable goals unrelated to speed. Depending on the day, simply getting my running shoes on and going outside can be an accomplishment. Your back-of-the-pack friends appreciate that goals do not have to be based on being faster than someone else, and we will celebrate small victories with you.

We need to create space in this sport for those of us that move slower so that runners of all speed can feel proud of their performance. Perhaps the first step is to relish the joy of moving forward, at any speed. It is a gift to be alive, and running is one of the fullest ways to simultaneously appreciate life, locomotion, and wilderness.

If you identify as a back-of-the-pack runner and have ever shared my feelings of inadequacy (from the misconception that speed is the sole objective) I applaud your tenacity for hitting the trail/road regardless. Faster friends, I encourage you to run slower than you normally would and see what new perspectives an easier pace yields. Or as they say, jog a mile in our shoes.

Grace Long

Grace Long

Grace is an enthusiastic and slow ultra-runner living in Vermont. Her love of the outdoors began with backpacking and exploring the Wild West, when she did a semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). In her free time she loves the challenge of setting First Known Times, and once even did three in one day! She is not only fond of slow running, but slow food as well; she and her husband have a big garden and enjoy canning what they cannot eat in the Summer to enjoy all year round. She works as a Registered Nurse to pay for her running habit. Her summit beverage of choice is any of Athletic Brewing’s (non-alcoholic) beer.

Trail Sisters is committed to creating opportunity and participation for women in trail running. Our content is always free to read. Consider a monthly contribution on Patreon to support Trail Sisters so we can continue to inspire, educate and empower others!

Comments

19 thoughts on “The Perks of Being a Back of the Pack Runner”

  1. One thing I love about being a jogger is that I get injured less.
    And yes I stop to sit on a bench or log once in a while to take in nature.
    But, also the view from the back can sometimes be really nice 🙂

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  2. Wow I totally identify with this! As a back of the packer and one who has literally been last in a race, I relish the view and run mindfully enjoying the energy of the run. My trail sisters retreat in June was cancelled but I hope to sign up next year to carry the torch for bringing up the rear! Cheers all 🤩

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    • So glad this resonates with you! BOTP life can be a lonely experience, but I just know you will feel supported and surrounded when you do finally make it to a TS retreat !

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  3. Thank you for this! I have always been a back of the packer, and enjoy the journey at the pace I can manage. I too have many fast ultra friends that I wonder if they think I am just a “jogger.”

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  4. I totally relate to this! I have never raced, partially because I’m worried I’ll be one of the slowest runners, and also racing just doesn’t appeal to me. I love slower, adventure trail runs where I take my time, enjoy the scenery and take plenty of photos! My goals are more related to distance than pace as well and I’d much rather be able to run for hours at a time at a pace that’s comfort than burn myself out quickly trying to keep up with others!

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  5. Really wise article about the perils of focusing only on pace — and the joys of running primarily for fun. A lot of your points have been tumbling around my head this past year. Thanks for putting them down so well!

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  6. Trail runners are the best people. Always worried about being the slowest but I now realize that acceptance is not an issue. Also, one perk to being at the back is someone else clears the spider webs for you.

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  7. At a very hard ultra I was like third from the last in. When I crossed the finish line my then young daughter asked me excitedly, “Moma! Are you last? Do you get a prize?” Her sense of accomplishment was so broad at her age that being first or last, it was all something special. I later learned that some races do have prizes for the last runner in!

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  8. Oh! So happy to read this article as I was feeling all of this on a group hike recently. I tend to stay away from the hike/runs because I know I am a back-of-the-pack girl. I love to take in my surroundings and enjoy the journey 🙂

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  9. What a beautiful tribute to us back-of-the-packers! We need to stop apologizing and feeling shame. It is a joy to be out and enjoying the journey! Thank you!

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  10. Thank you for giving voice to this! I often have those “self-doubting worries” myself, despite the strong efforts that my TS leader makes to emphasize that TS has a no-drop philosophy. Old (thought) habits die hard, but I am working on it 🙂

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  11. Great article, thank you! Oftentimes the “metrics” of our devices, listening to podcasts of others, and being in races while other throttle past prevent me from seeing the beauty of my slower pace. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not alone! 🙂

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  12. Thanks for your insights. I just started trail running with the hope of doing my first ultra in 2021. I’m 68 yrs old and very aware that I am slower than most trail runners. I have looked at the TS retreat pictures and thought, ‘way too old to join that group.’ Maybe now I’ll re-think that and try one next year. I did my first marathon at age 65 and found trail running thanks to my godson who is an ultra runner. Trail running makes me feel like a kid again.

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  13. Thanks for the article.
    I sometimes need to stop looking at every one else’s times and focus on the enjoyment and the sense of satisfaction I derive. Around here the leaders of the pack are the ones that wake up the snakes. Some are lying on the trails, hopefully by the time I get there they have wondered off.

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  14. Great article. Thank you for sharing. I can relate to the feeling — jogger vs. runner. I told my husband last week that sometimes I think I walk faster than I “run”. He reminded me, it’s a journey and what’s important is that I’m out there trying and overcoming and to enjoy it and feel proud of myself. So, I’m focusing on that. 🙂

    Reply

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