Competitive Running For Noncompetitive Runners

A guide for people who don’t like to run with other people.

Author by Theresa Fisher
Art credit: Kelsey Tyler

When it came to exercise, I was stuck in my ways: I liked to run a few times a week. I didn’t like to run with other people. I didn’t like to run in the morning. I didn’t like trendy workout accessories or running jargon or competitive vigor

I clung to my grouchy running preferences for years, rejecting invitations from would-be running buddies and ignoring suggestions for apps to track my progress. And, perhaps more than anything, I said no to races. No marathons. No 10Ks. No fun runs. No thanks.

In my defense, I was a grouch for a reason: I didn’t want running to become something I dreaded. Slapping my sneakers against New York City’s urine-soaked pavement was a boon to my sleep, as well as my mental and physical fitness. And something about the combination of being outside, being alone, and performing a repetitive motion helped me reach a looser state of consciousness. I did my best thinking when I forced my body to move and let my mind meander. I worried that pace goals and dreams of participation medals would ruin my relationship with my favorite low-commitment hobby.

And then I caved. Last December, a very fit friend of mine — who embraces group exercise and bleeds team spirit — convinced me to run the New York City half marathon. I don’t know why I said yes, given that I’d been fending off her race-related advances for years. Alas, I proceeded to pay $160 to run 13.1 miles during the gloomiest part of the year. 

Training For Non-Competitive Runners

Twelve weeks of winter stood between me and the race I’d reluctantly signed up for. Fortunately, the internet is teeming with half-marathon training plans. Some of the most popular ones come from the legendary Hal Hidgon, an 86-year-old runner and running writer. The Nike running app also gets high marks — you just enter information about your running habits and your distance goals, and the app generates a personalized week-by-week plan. 

I downloaded the Nike app and printed out a few different plans. Then, I kind of followed them.  

My very fit friend told me that long runs are the cornerstone of half-marathon training. So I did my best to fit one in every weekend — adding on a mile each week — plus three shorter weekday runs. But I made up my schedule as I went along. And I slacked on the recommended strength training sessions. This was a dumb thing to do, according to my achy knees.

Something I didn’t slack on was carb-loading. I also didn’t slack on wasting all of my money on the sorts of exercise accoutrements I’d previously rolled my eyes at: a dorky hydration belt with two water bottles, a non-hydration running belt, running gloves, replacement running gloves, non-cotton running socks, an insulated mock turtleneck, sweat-wicking everything, a foam roller, and kinesio tape.

The item I most resisted buying was a new pair of sneakers. By about week five, I’d acquired blood blisters so bulbous and crimson they deserved prominent billing in a medical encyclopedia. I was told the problem was my shoes. When you run long distances, your feet swell. So you need to buy clown shoes that your feet can grow into — or get used to having blood blisters and black toenails. I struggled to accept this explanation, until my blisters started to burst. Eventually, I ended up with the same overpriced sneakers I already owned, just two sizes bigger.

I didn’t back down, however, when it came to the issue of morning runs. Most races take place before 9am, so running gurus often recommend AM training. But I’m not a morning person; for the first few hours after I wake up, my body moves like a gummy bear in cement shoes. 

The only morning run I couldn’t avoid was the race itself. People assured me that adrenaline would kick in on the day of the race and overpower my morning sluggishness. But these people probably didn’t dry-heave on the sidelines of early-morning soccer games in high school because their bodies were stuck in stage-2 sleep.

The Final Countdown For Noncompetitive Runners

I spent the last two days before the race doing two things: 1) drinking water, coconut water, Gatorade, and fizzy-electrolyte-tab-infused seltzer, and 2) peeing. My #peegoal was “only the slightest hint of yellow.”

I also loaded up on gels. Gels are 100ish-calorie packets of sickeningly sweet slime that you consume during races to replenish your glycogen levels and restore your oomph.

I’d be lying if I said everything went smoothly on race day: I didn’t start the race when I was supposed to — thanks to a transportation mishap and a long porta-potty line, I had to drop back about six corrals. My borrowed Garmin watch malfunctioned, unless I really did run a world-record-breaking two-minute mile. And I turned my ankle in a pothole on Manhattan’s glorious FDR Drive. 

Nonetheless, in just under two hours after my late start, I crossed the finish line. And for the most part, I had fun getting there — despite the fact that I was running in a competitive setting before 9am, decked out in workout doo-dads, without a square foot of cement to call my own. 

It took about four miles to find my rhythm. But once I did, I was able to tune out all the people in close proximity to me and reach the mind-wandering state that got me hooked on running in the first place. I passed the miles mouthing the words to cliched pump-up songs and Broadway showstoppers and remixes of Motown classics. And soon enough, I was wrapped in one of those metallic capes, heading towards bagels and Bloody Marys.

I’m open to the idea of doing a 10K, or even another half-marathon. But I’ll always be a noncompetitive runner at heart. My favorite kind of race involves only one runner and a goal time of whenever I’m done.

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