Fact: people fear public speaking more than they fear death! And, when it comes to running, I’ve heard countless women say that their greatest fear is coming last. As someone who’s done so in almost a quarter of the 106 marathons I’ve run, I believe I’m uniquely qualified to comment on this subject.
Firstly, what many women don’t realise is that it’s actually incredibly difficult to come last – in fact, it took me, the slowest runner I know, 13 years! Secondly, coming last is never humiliating – you are actually more likely to get a bigger cheer than the winner because everyone will admire your guts and determination. Thirdly, those of us at the back have a lot of fun – we’re never too busy or breathless to chat, and we know our ‘enemy’ is the distance and not each other.
What’s more, something you probably never knew is that, just like a podium place, there is a certain status to coming last, which gives you bragging rights among those in the know. A couple of years ago, I was chatting on a running forum and the topic of coming last came up. Someone shared that they were terrified of doing so and, seeking to reassure them, I remarked that I’d come last in 25 marathons. All of a sudden, a runner called Tyre Girl challenged my assertion. I remembered Tyre Girl well as she’d told me she was aiming to run 100 marathons dragging a tyre behind her to raise awareness and funds for the sustainability charity EarthWatch. “I think you’ll find that I came last at the Farnham Pilgrim Marathon, so you’ve only come last 24 times,” she wrote, posting a screenshot of our times that showed she had indeed taken longer than I had because she’d been given a head start. “Who knew that coming last could be so… competitive ;)!” I wrote back, rather reluctantly conceding that I would have to revise my total.
So why exactly do so many women fear being slow or coming last so much? “Women are generally more risk averse than men, have a more conservative view about their level of ability and fear not being good enough,” says psychotherapist Samantha Carbon (samanthacarbontherapy.co.uk). Not only do these fears mean many women stay away from races altogether, but they also mean women who do enter races feel anxious while running, which can have a negative impact on their form. “Fearing that you don’t have what it takes can lead to stress and tighter muscles that fatigue more easily and it has the potential to interrupt your coordination, leading to injury and a decrease in mental toughness,” says Carbon.
Combating such negative, irrational thinking is crucial to running success, according to Carbon: “View yourself as being good enough and be kinder to yourself by remembering why you’ve entered this event: it may be an opportunity to improve your health, fundraise for charity, to socialise or to get satisfaction from achieving a personal goal. I believe that if you prepare well for a race and incorporate the correct training, nutrition and rest, then running can be transformational regardless of what time you finish in.”
As a clinical hypnotherapist specialising in sports performance, I often work with clients who doubt their running abilities, and the message I never fail to convey is this: if, instead of rating your races solely according to the time you’ve achieved, you rate them against different criteria, such as “most laughs had”, “most friends made” or “best views seen”, you’ll find that every race has PB potential.
To find races with long cut-offs, look for ones that accept walkers, such as the Beachy Head Marathon (beachyheadmarathon.co.uk). The Long Distance Walkers Association (ldwa.org.uk) welcomes runners at some of its events – and you often get a meal thrown in at the end. Saxons, Vikings and Normans (saxon-shore.com) also host challenge events in the south-east, where you can do as many or as few laps as you like in a set timeframe (sometimes as long as 12 or 24 hours).