A friend recently asked, “How do you nicely tell a person that the race they signed up for might not be possible for them?”
This is a friend I respect immensely and I know she had her friend’s best interest in mind with this question, but I want to expand on it a bit. I want to share why I would never tell one of my friends an event was not possible for them.
When I started running twenty years ago, I was almost forty pounds overweight. On a five-foot frame, forty pounds is a lot. On a five foot frame, that weight pushed me into the obese category for BMI.
I had denied my weight gain for over a year. Instead of facing the issue, I shopped, buying bigger sizes and pretending it didn’t matter. After my husband and I got married I went to the doctor for a routine visit and was forced to face the truth.
That day, my husband and I both decided to do something about it. We started making healthier food choices and started exercising. As an incentive to stick with a program we signed up for a 10k just over the state line, in South Carolina.
I trained for the race, losing weight along the way, but on race day, I was not prepared the way I now know I should have been. I was still overweight. I was still not as healthy as I would have liked to be but I was determined.
South Carolina in July is hot. Hot enough to burn my feet through my shoes. The kind of hot I will not even think about running in today. The kind of hot and humid that makes breathing more difficult even when you are just sitting on the porch. The kind of hot that makes running and breathing nearly impossible. But again, I was determined.
I did not have any fit friends. Thankfully, I had no one to tell me that maybe this race was not a good idea.
On race morning, I toed the line. I started running. Doing exactly what every new runner does, I started fast. Within a mile I was sucking wind. Within two miles I was walking more than running. By four miles, I was acutely aware of the ambulance rolling slowly behind me. Throughout that mile, the well-meaning driver asked over and over again, if I wanted to get in.
“Are you okay?” he would ask. “It’s a lot cooler in here,” he would say.
But I did not want to quit. I could no longer see a single runner in front of me. I was dead last, embarrassed and saddened, but I knew it would be worse to quit.
In the end I was so embarrassed that I worked out a strategy. As we approached the finish line I told the ambulance driver I quit but did not want a ride. He sped off. I moved to the sidewalk and continued my shuffle. When I finally came to the finish line I walked around it instead of through it, too embarrassed to let people know how far back I was.
I was gutted. I had come in dead-last. Why work as hard I had been if the best I could do was last? But then I was given a wake up call. A few minutes after I crossed the finish line, as I was rinsing my face in the ladies room another runner asked me how I did and I confessed.
“I was last,” I said almost in tears, “Dead last.”
Her reply made all the difference, “No you weren’t. You were here. How many people in those houses we passed today were even awake, much less out here running six point two miles? How many people in the city, state or country were sitting down to eat breakfast and have coffee while you were running that race? Anytime you run a race, even if you are the last one to cross the finish line, you are not dead last. There is always someone sitting at home doing nothing.”
I will never forget her kindness. I walked out of that bathroom with a totally different attitude. I had run six point two miles. I was a runner.
These days I am in a unique position to speak with runners from all over the world. I am in the position to encourage people to enter this sport no matter where they are starting. I am in a position to help people meet their goals and to get back out there when it doesn’t happen the first time.
They might be the last runner to cross the finish line. They might not even make it to the finish line before it is dismantled but their accomplishment is no less than the person who crossed first. They are runners. And with one race, one hard race that took guts to push through, the next one will be easier. With one hurdle cleared, they are armed with the confidence to clear the next one.
On a more practical note, if I am faced with a friend who is clearly going into a race that is going to be difficult. If it is clear, she has the chance of coming in dead last, I share my story with her. I remind her that walking is okay and suggest that maybe she should make a set of rules as to when she will walk so she doesn’t get discouraged because she has to walk. I talk to her through the training, encouraging her to keep working, and if at all possible I am there for her on race day. Cheering from the sidelines and letting her know how proud I am that she is taking her health and fitness into her own hands. I do this not as a fitness writer but as a runner who has been there and knows that the first step, the first race made all the difference in my life.