My freshman year at Whitman, our first meet was at home. I thought this meant some of my friends would come watch, but it was an early Saturday morning meet, and I found out that watching xc meets aren’t high on the list of things to do at that time, during the first week of college. I was still a little disappointed, but by the time the meet ended I was extremely relieved that none of my friends had come to watch. I got last place. The very last place. This means that I ran slower than everybody, and everybody ran faster than me.
I had my share of humbling moments throughout high school – especially starting out as the fastest freshman in long distance track and then suffering through a series of injuries and drops in motivation. But there was always somebody slower. Usually there were girls a lot slower than me – the ones that weren’t really into running but joined the team for social reasons or something. I may have even been last in a couple of track invitationals, but getting last isn’t quite so bad when there’s only ten or fifteen people running. In my first race at Whitman, there were fifty girls.
The memory of this race gets even worse when I look back at the results, which will probably be on the internet forever. Not only did I get last place, but the second to last finisher was almost a whole minute ahead of me (don’t be fooled by those “did not finish” results; they also did not start, and were not in the race at all).
I have no idea why I ran so slow that day. I wasn’t sick or injured, I had been training with the rest of the team just fine. I guess sometimes these things can just happen. The next week I ran the same distance five minutes faster (this is an unusual PR for a 6k). The season kept getting better until halfway through when I mysteriously started running really poorly again. Mystery solved later that year when I found out I was really anemic. It made me feel a lot better to know I was running so slow for a reason, but it didn’t change how embarrassing it was at the time.
When I have a bad race, or just a slow streak, it’s embarrassing on two levels. First, everyone can see you out there looking slow and like you’re bad at running. Secondly, people have this conception that I’m really fast. My first few years of competitive running, I was. But later I wasn’t, and the fact that everyone still thought I was really fast made everything that much more painful when I wasn’t. Now I’m okay at running, but a lot of people still have this notion that I’m really fast. People who have never seen me run or heard my times. It’s probably because I talk about running so much.
To summarize, being the slowest is embarrassing, as is being slower than everyone thinks you are.
I don’t normally dwell on these low points in my running career, because for the most part running is always fun, even if I’m not doing great. I bring it up because I was recently reminded of how hard it can be to deal with the embarrassment of being slow. And in what place would it be more appropriate to be reminded of embarrassment than at West Sylvan Middle School?
A couple weeks ago I started volunteering as an assistant coach at my old middle school. I ran xc there just during the fall of 8th grade, which was the first year our school had the program. Being back isn’t that weird – what’s weird is going to cross-country practice and telling people to run instead of doing it myself. I’ve never done any kind of coaching at all, so this is going to be a learning process.
As an assistant coach I don’t plan practices or anything like that, I just help tell kids what to do, and so far I have mostly just tried to help out kids who have injuries… and the slow ones. There’s one kid I especially like, who had never run a day in his life before the first practice. Running is obviously still a struggle for him at this point, not only evident by the fact that he makes it look physically difficult, but he’s also extremely expressive in how he feels about everything. The first day he ran the first half of the timed mile, put on his angry face, and shouted, “NO” when I told him he still had another 800 meters to go. I tried my best to be reassuring (I reassured him that no matter what, running always sucks the first week and there’s no way around it), and also another coach gave him a popsicle, so by the end he had a huge smile on his face.
The next practice he ran about three times as much as the first day, so I was already impressed. Then when we were sitting down and stretching, he started talking to me about how he wants to do the whole workout and he feels really bad when he can’t – but it’s “just so embarrassing when I’m the slowest one and other kids out there are lapping me.” His emotions were logical, but I don’t think I’ve ever really been able to admit my feelings in situations like that in such a down-to-earth way – especially not to a near stranger. I’m probably also overly impressed by this because in the last couple of years my interactions with kids have ever been fleeting and impersonal, or with 4 and 5 year olds, many of whom struggle greatly to tell me anything at all.
I don’t really know what to tell an eleven year old kid who’s embarrassed by being the slowest one on the team. Being the worst in a running situation is painful, because it’s not like a huge embarrassing moment where you do something really stupid and then it’s over. Instead it’s a long, drawn out process where you feel humiliated the entire time, and when you finally get around to finishing all eyes are on you, because everybody else has been done for a while. A little bit of this can be good for you/humbling/build character, but if it happens too much it just gets depressing. I suppose we’ll just have to whip this kid into shape so he doesn’t have to be embarrassed anymore.