I ran a 10 km road race this weekend, and I finished dead last. And it was great.
I wasn’t expecting to win. When I registered, I figured that like in the many festive road races I’d run before, I’d simply blend in with the pack, my physical mediocrity invisible among the bell curve of humanity. It’d be a great reason to get some good runs in early in the season, and I’d start the summer off in better-than-normal-for-me shape. This one would be even better because it was passing through my neighborhood, even traveling along my normal loop at certain points, so it was surely convenient.
Showing up at the starting line to pick up my number, I learned that there were just 60 of us, nearly all of whom were wearing such technical gear that it was obvious that I was out of my league. Incredulous that things could be this bad, I laughed it off, but within about two minutes of the crack of the starting pistol, I could see that the my fellow 59 runners and I were parting company.
This put me immediately in an interesting psychological state. Because I really, really hate being last. I hate simply being bad. As a child, if things didn’t come really easily to me, I’d quit. Ballet, softball, guitar, honors math. So I excelled at everything I did, because I only did the things at which I excelled. Carol Dweck calls this fixed mindset, in which we believe that our character and talent are static and determined early in life. Clearly it’s less preferable to growth mindset, a viewpoint that thrives on challenge and sees it “not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities,” (as written in Maria Popova’s excellent summary of Dweck’s research.)
Being bad at something, especially sports in a group, has in the past awakened a deep sense of shame, and sure enough, shame planted itself on my shoulder for a good view of the unfolding events about 500 meters into the run. Lately, I’ve also started noticing that when I’m ashamed, I lash out with blame. That was there too. Blaming the organizers for doing such a pitiful marketing job, blaming the other runners for being so gifted, even blaming the receding glaciers for leaving the landscape so hilly. This very short animated video of Brené Brown’s wisdom on blame sums up how blame is simply another attempt at escaping an uncomfortable emotion.
It would have been normal to quit, but I guess all these years of listening to people like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Pema Chodron have had some effect. They’re always saying stuff like “mindfulness is simply the moment-to-moment paying attention to what’s happening without judgement” and even more simply: “Don’t bite the hook.” And by that I have understood that when an uncomfortable feeling shows up, there can be some value in not trying to turn it off, and instead just observe yourself feeling it. Easier said than done. But at some point during Kilometer 1 of this humiliation, it struck me that this could be an opportunity for some major not biting of the hook. I could allow the anger, blame and shame to rage on the inside, while my legs slowly carried me along.
The kilometers passed, and I fell further and further behind. Every several hundred yards, there was a volunteer stationed to cheer people on and make sure we didn’t lose track of the trail. Each such encounter was a renewed opportunity for embarrassment, and I imagined that they were all in communication with each other about this pear-shaped, middle-aged, out-of-shape lady who was wasting their Saturday evening. I apologized to each of them for being so slow and thanked them for waiting, grateful for the ones who didn’t jump in their car and dash off seconds after I passed.
Eventually, my thoughts turned to dropping out, and I started formulating a plan about how I would take off my number and hand it to one of the officials at the next check-in. The problem was, I lived near the finish line, and I’d still have to run the entire way home anyway. I found myself thinking that I’d run just a little bit more, and hit a rather long stretch during which I was on my own.
I was still feeling pretty crappy but noticed that other thoughts started showing up. “Nothing changes if nothing changes,” I watched myself think. Dropping out would simply reinforce that I was a quitter. Then I thought that while it might feel terrible to finish last, it would definitely feel worse not to finish at all. At the top of a hill I started thinking about what kind of message would I be sending to my daughter if I dropped out, and what a gift it might be to show her, just once, that it was ok to be bad at things. I thought about my son and how, because of the way society is rigged for people without his cognitive and physical disabilities, he often comes in last in life. I suddenly appreciated his grace and dignity in the face of constant messages of not being good enough. Could this experience give me insight into his experience?
I thought about the people who weren’t running but had wanted to. Maybe there was someone who would see me shuffle by and think, “If she can, I can.” And finally, I started questioning my projections on the volunteers. Why did I assume that they were bored and impatient for me to finish? Maybe they deserved better.
There was a water break at around Kilometer 6. I was out in the middle of the woods with two teenage girls who made me feel like this was the most fun they’d had in weeks, confirming my theory that projections are some powerful magic. I asked them if they’d ever been last. Yes, they said. Any tips? Well, one of them said, you’re doing way better than the people who didn’t sign up. And at that moment, I knew I’d finish.
All of a sudden, I was at Kilometer 8, then 9. For the last 100 meters, I was cheered on by everyone who had volunteered at the registration and the starting and finish line; it felt like there were more people than had run in the entire race. I expected it to be the stake in the coffin of humiliation, but some knot has loosened, and it was actually great. One of the shy teenage boys who I’d seen out volunteering on the course even came up to me and said that he thought I worked really hard. Not sure it was meant as a compliment, but I took it as such. I think it was.
And suddenly…I was done. I looked down at the medal that someone has slipped around my neck at some point and realized that nowhere on it did it say that I’d finished last (by a lot). Maybe it was the endorphins or the dehydration, but I took this selfie and realized that the only thing I felt was great. Simply watching the shame and the blame unfold without reacting had released some deep behavioral patterns and habitual thoughts, like touching a soap bubble with my finger.
So this is what coming in last feels like. My legs are sore, but my spirit is soaring. I can live with this.