Don’t Be a Speedist: We Are All Runners

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So you put runners in boxes?

Faster people snubbing slower people is rude. This we know. But how often has a slower person said of a faster person:

I can’t talk to her because:

… she’s too fast.

… she’s kind of addicted.

… have you seen her PR?

… she’s totally obsessed.

… she wears those buns-things.

… she’s too ______.

How often have you been at the starting line at a race, and gazed at the svelte gazelles at the front and assumed they would never give you the time of day let alone be a potential friend? Do you assume a fellow runner who starts talking about her higher mileage (than yours) and (much faster than your) PR is bragging?

Why do so many people seem to assume that faster runners look down on slower runners? In fact, that assumption itself is rude: just because someone’s fast doesn’t mean she’s a jerk.

Three years after we first wrote about it, speedism still exists.

By the way some runners talk, you’d think elite runners or even the people who win the local 5k are Other, Untouchable, or Celebrity and they’re often written off as snooty better-than-you jerks. Or worse, some people are even offended if another runner dares to say she runs much faster or more mileage. That’s right: in this often-true scenario, a slow person is offended because a faster person talked about fast runner stuff. It’s as if there’s this rampant belief that somehow those who run the fastest, simply by being far ahead in the pack, intentionally diminish the accomplishments of everyone else.

Why do some feel so offended by other runners’ success? Are fast runners supposed to not talk about what they do? And an even better question might be: what does someone’s running speed have to say about that person beyond … how fast they run?

On the other hand, putting runners into boxes can go the other way too. I like to call myself a kind-of-fast-recreational runner. I usually place in the top 10% of races I run and I don’t run a race to just finish, I want to PR. I choose goals that are tied to specific paces and long distances. I try not to judge other runners who approach running differently than I do, but I’m not perfect about that.

I’ve seen those runners struggling at the back of the pack, trying to squeak in under six hours for a marathon only to be met with aid stations where volunteers have already packed up, pitied them briefly, and then didn’t give them another thought. Or, have you ever talked to another runner and then written off their commitment, seriousness, or validity when they mention their PR is two hours slower than yours?

No matter which direction it goes, the preconceived notion that someone of a different speed or ability level than you is either a better or lesser person than you is speedism. Speedism, like other -isms, leads to the impulse to distance yourself from that Other, whether faster or slower. Remember when Cinnamon wrote about why average runners should care about elites? She said this:

When you link a chain together, the links at the front will pull the links at the back.  I care about these women because they are part of my tribe, the front of my chain. I care about you because you are in my chain. We are alike, searchers all, braving rainy cold and humid heat and boring treadmill daily in our quest for the truth about the power inside us. If we stick together, when the elites get closer to the truth, I get closer too. As they exceed the expectations of the human body to run marathon paces that put my 400m time to shame, their success pulls me farther ahead, inspires me to work harder, reminds me to recover well, helps me build my body as a temple of my faith and trust in the truth.

The chain of runners from the very front to the very back is beautiful. But speedism breaks that chain apart into individual, disconnected links. No matter if we’re scowling up at super-elites in their altitude chambers or looking down on hobby joggers treasuring every finish, by destroying the chain with speedism, we are breaking apart our community by walling us off from making connections with other runners.

I know this from personal experience. For me, since I’ve worked to be more open-minded about runners of differing abilities, I realize that how critical I am of everyone else’s race times and training decisions corresponds with how critical I am of myself. That self-criticism has been one of my largest obstacles in achieving my goals. Once I stopped considering myself not good enough to run with people that intimidate me, not only have I become faster, but I’ve widened my friendship sphere and opened my heart and mind to the infinite joy running at any speed brings.

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Different PRs, same smiles.

At the end of a recent half marathon, as I waited and cheered for friends and strangers crossing the finish line for over an hour after finishing second, I noticed something: the smiles and sense of accomplishment did not change even as the time clock ticked off the minutes. The high fives did not decrease. The disappointment felt by runners who missed their goal was just as bitter, whether that goal was to break 80 minutes or two-and-a-half hours. The shit-eating finish line grins and glows of pride didn’t fade either as the links of the chain passed me by. The sense of community, of work well-done, bloomed.

Have you ever experienced speedism or have you ever been a perpetrator? What can we gain by overcoming it?

I'm an elementary P.E. teacher with a long-term, ongoing marathon addiction.The next big goal? Keeping up my BQ streak while aiming for a 3:10! I write about the not-so-glamorous side of running and fitting in serious training with a family while staying sane(ish).

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14 comments

  1. I so agree with this. I’m a faster-than-average runner (still plenty of folks faster than me), but I am faster than most people. And I love marathons. Racing for me is about PRs and getting the best out of myself, not finishing. And I really don’t like 5Ks because that kind of speed is difficult for me; I’m an endurance runner. However, I often feel I have to explain that I have the utmost respect for 5Ks and I will never, ever say, “just a 5K.” If you want to run for charity or social reasons, hell yeah! Do it up!

    Running more miles or runner faster doesn’t equate to being better, and it certainly does not mean I look down on people who run shorter or slower than I do. This sport is so beautiful because it connects all of us. Running can lift us up, and let’s celebrate that! Whether you’re racing a mile or an ultra, or anything in between, you’ve got my respect.

  2. Great post! (And I just love that Cinnamon quote so much!) I generally get embarrassed when people ask my times; they are on the faster end and people sometimes shut down after I say them, like I can no longer relate. Not true! We’re all runners, we all struggle with the same things. I generally try not to write specific paces on my blog (though that becomes tough on race reports when I’m trying to explain my goals) because I think it’s more relatable without the numbers. So you run 6 min/8 min/10 min/12 min miles, who cares? Running PR pace at any distance for anyone is crazy tough, no matter what that pace is. I used to run 9-min pace in a marathon, now I run much faster, but I’m still the same person.

    1. Yeah, it was a big breakthrough for me to realize that people who run (for example) 5k’s 5 or even 10 minutes faster than I do struggle with exactly the same frustrations, insecurities, and motivations that I do. Mind blown!

      I think this is partly why I get sort of emotional at the start line of races: so many different people, but all with the same love of running. And many have trained to the best of their ability, whether it’s 100 miles a week or 20.

    2. I totally identify with your comment about leaving out specific paces in your blog. When I wrote my series on training for the mile, I didn’t want to include any specific paces or times because I wanted anyone to be able to relate to the posts, no matter what times they might be aiming for. Salty strongly suggested I include my times for the last post in the series because it related to my achieving my own goals – and she was right, the post was better for including that info – but that was hard for me because I really didn’t want to alienate anyone (either on the faster end or the slower end).

    3. Just last night at a neighbor’s wine gathering, people were asking me about how much I run/how fast etc, etc and I totally felt embarrassed (in a weird way) to answer. Sigh. I do include my times on my training logs because (I hope) that they help either inspire someone or even give examples of workouts to do. I love Cinnamon’s quote, too 🙂

  3. Great perspective! I have been on both sides of this dilemma. I often feel “less than” among fast runners/elite’s, not because I think they are snobby – but because I am in awe! They live on a pedestal in my running brain and I guess I feel a bit star struck. I am an average runner. I guess for my age group I am better than average, but I consider myself average. Running for me is Joy. So when my friends who have never run a marathon say they can’t run w/me because I am “too fast” or they couldn’t keep up, it makes me feel bad. I typically run alone and I enjoy doing that – and if I run w/a slower friend, I run their pace because I want to enjoy both the run and time w/them. It’s interesting how this thought process is an “ism” on both sides.
    Thanks Pimento, I appreciate your writing.

  4. I remember once on a Sunday long run with the college cross country team, I must have been having a good day and came up behind the lead pack of super speedy girls. I ran behind them for a minute, then one looked back and went “heather?! What are YOU doing here?” Her tone was…not unsnotty 😉

    I’ve also gotten various petulant comments from middle aged men I pass at races.

    Otherwise I think I’ve been more of a speedist towards other people, in the form of assuming fast people are somehow different from me, than I’ve been on the receiving end of speedism.

  5. This is a great post! I have a similar, yet almost opposite problem. I’m on the slow side but I look like I would be fast and I’ve been running for a few years now. Any friends that are new to running assume I’m fast and I’m ashamed to tell them my PRs. One friend’s first 5k was faster than my PR.

  6. Interesting post, and definitely something I have experienced. Like you and some of the other commenters, I’m a faster-than-average runner who races for PRs and to win my division, so my race times are faster than those of many of the other women I know who run. People just assume I always run at the paces I race at so they either don’t want to run with me because they think they can’t keep up, or they feel they have to run fast while running with me because if they don’t it will be too slow for me. I have a double whammy because I also do a lot of injury prevention work with runners, including biomechanical analysis, so people also assume if they run with me I’ll be spending my time analyzing their running form.

    In reality, most of the time unless I’m doing a workout or running in a race I don’t really care what pace I’m running at. I would actually rather run at a nice easy pace most of the time. And unless someone specifically asks me, or is paying me, to analyze their running form, it’s not what I notice when I run with others. But I usually wind up running alone or with my dog, even though I’d love to run more with other people.

    Does anyone have a good comment or witty remark (that’s not self-deprecating) they say when they are confronted with speedism?

    1. Oh my word– the assuming that I always run fast thing. Nope. I’ve become totally one or the other, it’s either a fast workout or slow and easy, whereas I used to always hover somewhere in the middle. I can’t think of a non-deprecating comeback, but I’d love to hear one!

  7. As one of my teammates (who has a 1:12 half marathon PR) says “a mile is a mile, whether you run it in 5 minutes or 12 minutes”. I’m incredibly fortunate to be a part of a tight knit local group of women who range in age from 23 to 47 and in pace from our 1:12 half marathoner to some 6+ hour marathoners (and a bunch of women who don’t even race the marathon, the fact of which is a whole different topic of -ism that exists in running) – and we all love and respect one another regardless of pace or experience. It’s fun for me to sit back and observe the dynamic between these women! The love is strong, and the lack of speedism in any direction is wonderful.

  8. I’ve found that the trail run groups in which I participate seem to have the least concern for speediness of runners. In part because so much of the discipline is based on endurance and patience. And yet, the ultra runners I know are super fast on the trails at the middle distances!