In the early 2000s, Runners’ World magazine started featuring a regular column called No Need for Speed . Penned by John “The Penguin” Bingham, it celebrated the “back of the pack” runner, whose goal was simply to cross the finish line.
Back then Bingham provided a voice for those runners for whom speed was elusive. But he also raised the hackles of running purists who felt that plodders like Bingham had no place in a road race. Thankfully The Penguin, who was also famous for stating that the miracle wasn’t in finishing but in having the courage to get started, understood the mentality of the back-of-the-pack crowd and welcomed a whole new demographic of recreational runners to the community.
It’s likely that you’ve seen runners like Bingham around your neighbourhood. They’re the guy or gal who shuffles more than runs, with barely of sliver of light visible between their feet and the pavement at any given time.
There are more shufflers than there are fleet of foot at any road race. Runners are getting slower since Bingham penned his first column in 1996. According to Jens Jakob Andersen, an avid runner who gathers global running statistics on his website RunRepeat , runners have never been slower. The average marathon finishing time (for men) is 40 minutes and 14 seconds slower than it was in 1986.
Not just slower — runners are older, too. The number of runners over 40 has consistently increased over the years, with Andersen claiming that the amount of middle-aged runners tackling 5K courses around the world has almost doubled since 1986.
What does this tell us about the running community? First, it’s clear that there is no one profile that fits a runner. So while it’s common to picture someone lean, youthful and in great shape, runners really do come in all ages, shapes, sizes and speeds.
It’s not easy to ignore the lure of getting faster. Today’s running apps and smart watches deliver a constant stream of feedback during a run, including the pace of your last kilometre, average pace for the workout and the difference between your current pace and your goal pace. For many runners, those stats are motivating, but for just as many, it’s too much information.
It’s the motivation to get out there on a regular basis that is the difference between someone who runs and a runner. Andersen believes that more runners than ever are interested in the health and wellness benefits of running, with performance taking a back seat to the overall experience and sense of accomplishment that comes from putting in the miles.
A study published in Footwear Science reported that slower runners weren’t less experienced than faster runners. Nor did they skimp on their weekly mileage or the frequency in which they laced up their running shoes. This suggests slower runners are just as committed — but not as invested in picking up the pace. What they are invested in is running at a speed just fast enough to get the job done.
The idea that pace isn’t the best measure of a runner is a refreshing concept. It seems like running culture has aged alongside runners themselves, with the sport moving away from focusing on personal bests to the experience itself. As such, there’s no better time to give running a try. With so many apps that specialize in turning non-runners into runners and so many local 5Ks just waiting to welcome newbies, it couldn’t be easier.
If you still don’t see yourself as a runner, take the opportunity to check out a local road race. Chances are you’ll see plenty of runners who look like you. And just for good measure, be sure to check out the “back-of-the-packers,” who might be lacking in style but not in determination. You’ll also notice that the last wave of runners has a more social feel. There’s more chatter between runners, not to mention more smiles. But what really stands out among this group is their ability to motivate each other toward the finish line.
With the fall marathon season upon us, it’s a good time to be reminded that it’s not how fast or how far you run that matters. It’s the work that led you to the finish line that counts most. All runners who attempt and complete a goal distance deserve a celebratory high five. And if there’s no one around to give it, the back-of-the-pack crowd aren’t shy about giving it to each other.
As Bingham signed off at the end of each column: “Waddle on, friends.”
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