For many runners, crossing the finish line as quickly as possible is the ultimate goal. But for some, simply crossing the line before the organizers pack up and leave is enough. In a culture that celebrates speed and power, being a slow runner often comes with little glory. But slow runners have found that there is something special about putting aside their watches and focusing on the experience of running, rather than just the time it takes to finish.
During the 2016 New York City Marathon, one such runner came close to missing her goal. As she neared the finish line, city workers were already disassembling the course, and her friends had left their cheering posts for dinner plans. While finishing the race was a highlight of her life, she couldn’t help but feel disappointed to have finished almost last.
After running hundreds of miles and dozens of races, this runner has come to reconcile her slower pace with her desire to be seen as an athlete. She has also learned that there is a physiological reward for not giving up, which health psychologist Kelly McGonigal calls the “persistence high.” When we exercise at a comfortable intensity for at least 20 minutes, we often experience a surge of endocannabinoids, which are the same biochemicals associated with the “runner’s high.”
Slow runners still face biases and obstacles, particularly when it comes to being recognized as athletes. Running only became a leisure activity for the masses in the 1970s, and it has always been associated with speed. Some marathons advertise a seven-hour time limit but pack up the course after just six hours, or they run out of finisher medals. Slow runners who have larger bodies face additional challenges, as our culture equates thinness with virtuous living.
Over time, however, many slow runners have learned to focus less on external metrics and others’ judgments and more on how they feel when they’re running. Running a 13-and-a-half-minute mile and using the Galloway method, which incorporates walk breaks, has made running a joy for some. Accepting that their accomplishment and the work they put in is just as valuable as those running faster has allowed them to appreciate the benefits of running at a “feels good” pace, which may be different for everyone.