Are You a Bottom Feeder?

My First Age Group Award - 2nd Place AG for the Fit & Healthy Mamas 5K
My First Age Group Award – 2nd Place AG for the Fit & Healthy Mamas 5K in 2012

You might be familiar with the concept of sandbagging, or when a runner falsely states she’s slower than she actually is so that she can blow away the competition during a race.  A good way to think of bottom feeding is the opposite of that; it’s deliberately finding a race with slow competition in order to get an award.

I am an unabashed and proud bottom feeder.  It was my husband who introduced me to this concept. When we first started racing 5Ks with my husband he would assiduously pour over data to see what he would need for an age group award or better. I couldn’t believe he cared so much about “cheap trinkets!” I was sure his behavior stemmed from a lack of participation in sports and competitive activities in his childhood. I haughtily told him that I felt no need for external motivation and that the intrinsic motivation of pushing myself was enough because I had plenty of medals, ribbons, and trophies from my childhood.

Then he pointed out to me that I could win an age group award at a small race with a sub 25:00 5K, and I lost the hoity-toity attitude!  Once I won my first age group award, I was hooked and began obsessively perusing various sites to find a small 5K with a slow field where I could win another.  I became an unabashed and proud bottom feeder.

Curious?  Perhaps you’re interested in winning your first AG award?  Read on!

Admitting that you’re a bottom feeder might seem disgraceful or even pathetic, but it’s not! Many runners do this. I can’t tell you the number of times I met a runner who traveled for over an hour because she was sure that she’d be able to place in a particular 5K. Even elites and sub-elites will strategically pick races with slower competition for a confidence booster during racing season.

I was 1st overall winner of a 2-Mile Race because the two faster women were in 3.5-Mile Race.
I was 1st overall winner of a 2-Mile Race because the two faster women were in 3.5-Mile Race.

Based upon my experience with bottom feeding, I discovered there are a few considerations to make when evaluating whether you have a good chance in getting an age group award or better.

  • Small field: The smaller the field, the better your chances are for winning because there’s less competition; the same principle applies for an age group award.
  • Slow field: Look at results from prior races to see the times of the winners. If last year’s winners ran a time that you could run, then you have a great chance of getting an award!
  • Inaugural race: Inaugural races are great for bottom feeding because not many runners know about these races, so there isn’t as much competition.
  • A small, poorly advertised race
  • Multiple local races on the same day: Competition is going to be split among different races. You need to find the race where the fast runners won’t be at.
  • A running festival with two (or more) distances (for example, a 5K and a 10K): Sign up for the shorter distance because the speed monsters always sign up for the longer one.

While I do appreciate running for all the intrinsic and non-material benefits it gives me, it’s always nice to get a little external reinforcement from a win once in a while!

Who else is a bottom feeder? What do you think of the practice?  If you haven’t tried it, would you?

I'm an academic, a runner, and a New York cliché. I write about the science of exercise, training, and the culture of running. My current goals are a sub-23:00 5K (achieved on 4/22/17 with 22:48) and a sub-1:45 HM (achieved on 10/1/17). Now what?

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  1. Yeah, I do it too. To my honest, I track my progress by how large/well established the races I place in are. When I placed first in age group in a 3000 person 5k, I probably glowed for a year. I’ve also found Boston weekend is a great weekend to race.

    1. Bottom feeders unite! Although you’re much better than I am. I can only place if the race has a few hundred at most. You did great in such a large 5K! If I did that, I could probably light the Empire State Building for month.

  2. On one hand I love that you are true to you and unabashedly doing something other people might snub their noses at! For me personally, I am the opposite and tend to diminish the accomplishment of my wins or high placings when They were in “bottom feeding” races. i tend to evaluate my performance separately from the race I’ve run and while that might be the “noble” runner thing to do its also prevented me from fully appreciating my accomplishments too. Nothing wrong with basking in the afterglow of a win even in a small race!

    1. I’d take a PR over an AG award any day, but I don’t PR at every race like I used to in my first year of running. So the AGs are a nice intermediate reward until I hit a new PR.

  3. This is a light, funny article and made me laugh. I love winning the smaller races but I never run as fast as I would if there were 3 or more semi-elites ahead of me! I definitely do the best if I am in second or third and in danger of losing one of those top spots.

  4. As I get older, the competition, no matter the race but especially in smaller ones, diminishes. I do check the prior results but each race is run on its own. Love the age-group wins but for me it’s likely more a case of attrition and fewer runners. My older son, when he was running marathons (as recreational runner, PR of 2:44 at ING NYC marathon), lamented the smaller races as fewer faster runners affected his ability to pace…not focused on winning but on running a good race. We’re all different, no?

    1. What is meant by a good race differs from person to person. In a small race where my husband has a legitimate chance to come in as an overall winner, he runs a more tactical race rather than just trying to run as fast as he can to PR. In those races, he considers carrying out a good strategy to be a good race even though he may not have ran as fast as he could have. I have no strategy to my running other than to hang on for dear life in the last mile.

  5. Haha! This is great! I don’t race very often — maybe once or twice a year — so when I DO race, I pay attention to my place and really enjoy it if I do well. Maybe that would change if I raced more (ie: I wouldn’t care as much ‘cuz racing wouldn’t be as big of a deal.) My first overall 26.2 win was back in January at the small-ish Louisiana Marathon. It’s tempting to want to go back to Louisiana in ’16 and defend the title — there’s something really exciting about breaking a tape– but I just signed up for the Houston Marathon instead. Yikes. I’ll be beyond happy if I can manage to break into the top 30 there! But I’ll be proud of myself if I do, because I’m setting that as a goal and committing to it. As long as you’re setting and reaching your personal running goals, do whatever makes you happy!

    1. Oooh, you’ve won a marathon. I’ve never gotten anything outside of a 5K. I’m a true bottom feeder. I hope to one day find a small half where I could get an AG award.

      1. I’m so afraid of the 5k! True story. I’ve never tried one! It’s a totally different kind of pain compared to the marathon, from what I hear (and I’ve always been too freaked out by the idea of going all out like that in a race. Spoken like a true distance lover…I like my steady paces and HATE sprinting!) Maybe I need to take a page out of the bottom feeder playbook, find a reeeeally small 5k, and give it a shot sometime? 🙂

        1. REALLY??? Yes, a 5K is a different beast than a marathon, but I find it so much more approachable. I always joke that the last three miles of any race are the hardest and that includes a 5K. It is a bit of a pain fest, but I tell myself that I can do anything for a mile. That mantra always gets me through.

  6. Hah! I’m going to be a bottom feeder for my first 50 miler! I might place in my age group, and i’m pumped about that hahaa

  7. There is no shame in that and I’m glad you admit it! I am a reformed bottom feeder. I used to pick small 5ks that I could win. It got old and cost me too much money! I find that I run faster in bigger races. In small races I get very uncomfortable if I can’t see anyone ahead of me. Usually there are 16 minute guys who are too far ahead to see…then there’s me 3 minutes behind. Seeing people ahead of me is motivation to keep up or pass them, or to try not be passed by people behind me. In small races I feel like I’m in no man’s land. I have even made wrong turns in poorly organized ones! Nowadays I would rather not win and get a PR than win and have a slower time.