Back of the Pack: How Being Last Can Make You Faster

When I first started running, a colleague and friend of mine invited me to come and run with him and some others on Tuesday evenings for “Tuesday Track Night”.   The plan was to meet at my friend’s house, warm up by jogging to the track near his place, run the track workout, and then jog back. Since I was thrilled to be invited to run with others and I knew this would help me learn how to do track work, I told him I’d show up. That first Tuesday I learned a few things:

1)   The track was 2 miles away. Therefore the “warm up” was almost as long as the 3 miles total I’d planned for that evening.

2)   His group was FAST. Their leisurely 8:30-9min mile pace to the track was faster than my RACE PACE at the time.

3)   Trying to summon the energy in my legs for the 2 mile jog home almost killed me – and had me pretty much convinced that it would be the only time I came out to run with his group

By the time I practically crawled to my car after the jog back, I was totally wiped out. And FRUSTRATED. My friend, however, was unperturbed. “You’re coming back next week, right?” he shouted as I waved meekly and drove off.   Not likely, I thought to myself.

That next week as Tuesday rolled around, he extended the invitation again. “Come run with us!” he badgered. I told him that I was too slow, that it was too hard to keep up. But I did enjoy being on the track with the others and even just having other people running near me, if not WITH me. So I showed up again.   I was huffing and puffing to the track – feeling so wiped out from just trying to keep them in sight on the warm up that I had hardly anything left for the actual track work. And even less for the cool down.   But I survived, and week after week I showed up.   I was always the last one to finish the warm up and the track work.   And they’d polished off their Gatorade and thrown on their flip flops before I’d even crested the last hill to complete the cool down.   Occasionally one of the guys or gals would take pity on me and drop back to my pace to run it in. And everyone was as nice as could be. But it was tough being last. Every single week I was last. Every. Week.

I wish I could say that I magically got faster quickly, and that it wasn’t hard after a while. But that’s not the case. I struggled in the back for months with them. And even when I no longer was able to run with that group, I’ve found myself in the back of the pack in almost every group I’ve ever run with. But now, you see, I seek to put myself in that position. Because I’ve learned a few things along the way about being in the back:

1)   It builds your knowledge base. You get to see and talk to (for at least SOME portion of the run or before and afterwards) folks that are faster than you. You hear about their training techniques and quirks, their good races and their bad ones.   Race day strategies and new workouts they are trying. You get a chance to learn from them about what works, and what doesn’t.

2)   It forces you to learn YOUR pace.   It’s easy to get caught up in conversation with the pack at the start of a run. You tell yourself that you can hang on and gut it out to stay with them as they start to pick up the pace. But a mile or two in you know you’ve made a mistake – and on the rest of the run you suffer for it. It only takes a few repetitions of this before you realize something VERY IMPORTANT: You have to run YOUR pace.   It’s important on a long run, and it’s even more important on race day.   Yes, that means that you have to let the pack go while you hold the pace that’s right for you. And while that’s not always the most fun, it’s a lesson that will pay dividends on race day.

3)   It lights a fire. Each week you may find yourself convincing your mind and body to hang with the pack for just one more minute, or one more mile before dropping back a bit to run your own pace. Each week as you watch the pack pick up the pace and slowly pull away from you during the run, it inspires you to get better. To work harder.

4)   It teaches you perseverance. It’s not fun to always be last. It’s frustrating and disheartening and has made me cry angry tears on more than one occasion. But if you can swallow your pride and just keep showing up and working hard, you’ll discover just how tough you are and how much determination you have.

5)   It makes you better. Last but not least, when you run with a faster group you WILL get faster.  As you see them up ahead, your mind and body will want to close that gap – and you’ll find yourself running slightly faster than you would on your own which leads to your body getting stronger each week. Even if you are in the back of the pack every time, provided you continue to work hard, you WILL improve.

It won’t happen overnight, but running with a faster group will make you a better, stronger runner. As you get better you’ll notice that you are able to hang with the pack for a bit longer each week, and one day you’ll look around and notice you are running near the front.   And when that happens…smile, pat yourself on the back, and start looking for a another group.