A Lesson From the Back of the Pack

Move over pro’s, elites, fast people, aspiring fast people, Strava stalkers…it’s time we learn one of the best athletic lessons from the back of the pack.  It’s time we learn a thing or two from them.

This lesson that I’ve known for years, came rushing back to me in a flash this past weekend as I ho-hummed around my mediocre at best,  trail-running race.  Feeling a bit like a victim (ugh) and tiny twinge of imposter syndrome (since I couldn’t seem to get my brain out of the negativity spiral throughout the race-something I work with my clients on) I was mesmerized and inspired again by watching the grimaces, smiles and expressions on the faces of those finishing much much farther behind me.  Over an hour after my finish, freshly baby wiped off, recovery food in the tank, and clean clothes on-I watched person after person.  I then felt a bit embarrassed, that I had so easily succumbed to my own athletic demons that I’ve been wrangling with (and mostly winning over) for ten plus years.  

I didn’t see any victim faces, or negative Nellie’s on those folks.  What I saw was exactly what I had been trying to force myself to feel for almost nearly 17 miles.

Pure internal connection-pride, elation, relief, pain, joy…you name the feeling it was coming from within.  

It reminded me of a couple years back when standing at the Imogene Pass awards ceremony and watching 75 year-olds stand up for their trophy.  If you don’t know what Imogene Pass is-it’s a 17.1 iconic mountain run that goes from the mountain town of Ouray to Telluride Colorado-summiting at over 13,000 feet.  It feels hard in a jeep-so witnessing these senior runners accept their completion awards was jaw dropping.  

So what’s the story here?  What do these similar groups have in common that draw us in for true inspiration?  

It’s an INTERNAL experience-or drive.  I doubt those older folks were checking Strava for times, and numbers.  They were doing it to do it. 

I think many of us could learn a thing or two-myself clearly included from last weekend. 

Indeed the back of the pack, or the slower runners (insert your sport) may not hold the glamour of the top runners, but they for sure have their motivation in check.  

I call it the slow burn versus the fast burn.  You see, when we complete something challenging, something we’ve prepared for and we are connected to ourselves, to our purpose, to Flow, regardless of our finishing time or placement we feel something deep in us that is so utterly satisfying, that burns slow over time and sometimes never even leaves us.  The fast burn is the immediate, and not lying -darn powerful, feeling we get from a numbers based goal.  This isn’t to say that one is bad, or right or wrong…but it’s good to know the difference.  It’s also good to know what will sustain us in our sport.

Solidly now in my “Master’s” era of running (formerly cycling) I’ve learned to start appreciating this more and more, age 43.  Way back when-the fast burns: the wins, the podiums, the ups and downs were way more intense, almost manic feeling at times, but the downs had their equal pull.  The let down at not achieving some numerical greatness started taking its toll on me.  Competition started to feel a bit crazy making and certainly not sustainable or what I would call healthy.  Frankly and honestly, I wasn’t happy.  This is something I share with my clients-as my own journey.

I encourage my athlete-clients to at least start considering what the slow burn could feel like; what flow or purpose would feel like.  Somewhat formulaic, but so important-I start most of my new athlete therapy sessions with a question,  “Why?”.  “Why do you ride?” (run, ski, climb).  Often, we have to slice through our own bullshit to answer that question honestly, but it serves a powerful purpose.  It will do one of two things, and sometimes both.  Answering that question honestly, can connect us to the purity of movement, the joy, the curiosity, the feeling that keeps us coming back day after day, workout after workout.   It can also powerfully show us faulty motivations that perhaps blind us or prevent us from full mental or emotional health.  All too often, I see an athlete that has turned their love of movement into a personality, a persona, or means to  self worth.  That’s an entirely different post, but hopefully that illustrates an obvious dead end.  That was my story way back-I felt like I was on the top of the world when I won and a flawed human if I didn’t win-it was a painful and problematic experience.

So my advice, regardless of how fast you are, is to at least start exploring your INTERNAL drivers-the why?  Identifying them is key; experiencing them is transformative.

Go out for a run without data or anything electronic, except for maybe a stopwatch to get back home on time and try to FEEL flow, purpose, or inspiration in your body.  Is there an image? A person or thing that inspires you-something that you feel connected to?  Whatever that means or looks like for you.  That’s the slow burn.  

Enjoy those fast burn workouts too-breakthrough workouts, faster times, being the first to the top of a climb, but try not to drink the CoolAid-the real sustaining joy is in the stuff that numerical results can’t provide.

This last spring I had three different race experiences that provide an almost perfect lesson and something I will hold with me as I continue my Master’s quest-I’ll end with these brief stories as a way to hopefully show how the rubber meets the road. 

During the winter of 2020 I had my very first surgery-and it was a big one.  Years of high impact and intense training, with many rolled ankles, my ligaments, tendons, and even some bone pieces were blown on my left ankle.  My body couldn’t compensate anymore.  And so, with acceptance, and good confidence in my orthopedic surgeon I went under the knife.  He was adamant that I would run again but after the surgery, and for about six months it seemed a bit far fetched. 

Fast forward to a year later-this last February (2021) I found myself towing the line for a 25K trail race, fairly well trained in, pain free, but completely unsure of how my body would respond.  After all, I hadn’t done any racing or hard training for a very very long time.  I made a firm commitment to myself to complete my run from an internal place.  To connect with my body, the intensity, the ground, and to push only from inside.  The feeling was absolutely intoxicating.  I crossed the line in second place (but really, who cares) with a fast time-stunned, joyous, and tearful.  It was hard to explain the myriad of feelings-the gratitude for being able to move my body like that.  It’s a feeling that stays with me to this day-as I write this.  A slow burn for sure.

Enter-the next race…now this is when my brain started to get a little off track.  I started listening a little too much to that other greedy voice in my head that wanted to get more competitive.  I started looking more at race entrants, times, -but luckily I checked myself and knew the danger of entering that world.  It manifested itself the week before the race in me not wanting to race and calling a dear friend, who coaches.  After listening to me ramble on about why I shouldn’t run, he simply brought me back and said…  “Marisa, just go run for fun!-you aren’t rested or tapered so you won’t run that fast, just go run for fun!”.  Simple, right?  And so I towed the line for my second race, with ease and curiosity.   Making a rookie mistake, I tried to go out with the fastest lady (after all that’s fun!) and ended up a bit blown up, but was able to get back on track after the hard slog of a climb, by connecting to the fun and flow of the technical downhill.  It was amazing-I was absolutely in the moment.  I crossed the line feeling happy, again.  Not quite the same-but certainly darn happy.  

This leads to the final experiment of a race-last weekend.  I had the reversal experience-already explained.  So, what happened?  How did I go from flow, and fun to grumpy and disappointed?  It’s simple…in a very sneaky and subtle way (without me being able to even detect it)  I had shifted to a more outcome based perspective-an external way of running.  Coupled with a few very stressful weeks in work and life-I set myself up for a pretty crummy experience.   Despite a solid finish, I wasn’t happy and I longed for the joy I felt just months before.  The joy I saw on those slower older runners…THATs what I wanted.  As with so many things in life, we often learn from our mistakes, or our shortcomings, or when things don’t go our way.   So, even as I write this I feel some gratitude for that experience.  It reminded me of the importance of continuing to check myself, my motivation, my energy expenditure.  I’ve learned that I’m a sensitive person to comparison, I get hooked quickly, which has always been the reason I shy away from too much social media, or Strava.  (I guess I just blew my chances at getting that Strava sponsorship-kidding.  No sponsors for me anymore). 

So, I applaud loudly for those runners on Sunday that reminded me of this powerful lesson, and my hope is I’ve reminded some of you too. 

The REALLY cool part is for those of us that still can’t seem to help ourselves to run faster…the slow burn often promotes fast burn.  When the slow burn and the fast burn overlap-it’s quite possibly the defining athletic experience!

1 thought on “A Lesson From the Back of the Pack”

  1. I love this article! Having been involved in professional sporting events, I watch not only the athletes, but also the spectators be super intensely focused on the winners, the times, as if the only reward was the trophy at the end. Marisa makes the point and highlights what I have always loved about sporting events of this nature, where the athletes span age groups, and levels of categories. At all 8 plus of my Hawaiian Ironman/Ironperson World Championships where I was a motorcyclist supporting the lead man or woman, what would WOW me was not the professionals, it was the parents, and workers who found time to train, not the professionals who were paid for doing their job (although they too were impressive), it was the late night finishers. The people who were driven from the inside, to find their strength, and tenacious resolve to finish and accomplish what seemed like, and was, a formidable task. I will share with you that at those events, I would cry as I saw each and every one cross the finish line exhausted, completely depleted, yet fully energized with an inner glow of satisfaction. It was refreshing for me to read this blog from an ex-professional who can admire the “commoner”, and their accomplishments. Thank you for this blog.

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