Six things I've learned as a slow runner

Lisa Swan at the finish line of the 2016 New York City Marathon. Courtesy of Lisa Swan

Many people have changed their lives through running. I am one of them. Since I started running in 2013, I went from being an obese couch potato to a physically fit, normal-weight woman who plans her weekends around her road-race schedule. For me, even a crummy day running is better than just about anything else.

I thought when I lost the weight that my turtle-like pace would improve, and it has. But at my best, I'm only at the front of the back of the pack, still slower than most runners. I've never gotten below 34 minutes for a 5K or an hour and 15 minutes for a 10K, so I hover at the 11- to 12-minute-mile pace. Being slow in an athletic activity all about speed presents a unique set of challenges and blessings. Here's what I have learned.

1. You get a lot braver.

When you are a slow runner, especially when you are overweight, you become used to being a spectacle of sorts. When I joined the Staten Island Athletic Club 80 pounds ago, the members of the running club didn't know what to make of me. An officer later told me he thought I had gotten lost on my way to a Weight Watchers meeting!

Then there's the fact that your race times look pathetic compared to everybody else's. When you're still chugging toward the finish line and the early finishers have already gone home to shower, you can't help but feel a little weird.

It took a long time for me to get over imposter syndrome as a slow runner. But I eventually learned to stop worrying about how I looked compared to others and focus on being the best me. Before I ran, I was afraid to try new things for fear of looking stupid. Now, I honestly do not care. Whether it's going to a dance class with people 25 years younger or standing up for myself in a tough situation, this has made a huge difference in my life.

2. You develop mental toughness.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady talks in his new book, "The TB12 Method," about his "will-over-skill mind set" and how to learn to be mentally tough. He writes, "If you're naturally the best at something, you're never challenged, and you lose the opportunity to develop the right mental toughness."

He's absolutely right. Will over skill is pretty much the story of my running history. There are things that come easily to me, but running isn't one of them. That's precisely what I like about it. I can't rely on natural talent -- because I have none -- so it's all a matter of determination, drive and persistence. Looking at the list of the many races I've run -- more than 175 since 2013, including two marathons, 10 half marathons and two triathlons -- and all the training that went into them, gives me an enormous sense of accomplishment. In my own way, I've come back from a third-quarter 28-3 deficit to win.

That mental toughness has served me well both on and off the course. It's how I was able to do the 2XU New York City Triathlon this year, even though I learned how to swim this year and had been on a bike outdoors only once in the past 30 years until several months before the race. I had the tenacity to take on new challenges and not be afraid.

3. You might experience negativity and condescension.

Most of the running community is very welcoming, but there are certain runners who have decided that people below a certain pace (usually a little slower than what they themselves complete a course in) are not "real" runners. They'll refer to anybody slower than themselves as "hobby joggers" and the like. Lovely.

Hearing "good for you" might make you smile or cringe because it's sometimes hard to know whether somebody saying something nice to you is being encouraging or mocking. I remember when a fellow runner asked me before a 5K whether it was my first race, when I had done more than 40 by that time. He was trying to be nice, but it still embarrassed me.

On the other hand, you might be surprised by who will help you with genuinely encouraging comments and advice. My experience is that it's the truly great runners in your community who are most likely to help you. Take my friend Chris, who has run more than 100 marathons and done dozens of triathlons and who has been extremely helpful with his guidance. Or Mario, one of the top runners at my club, who was impressed enough by my determination to improve that he coached me through training for my first marathon.

4. You don't have quite the same race experience that faster runners do.

Although both slow and fast runners do the same course, the latter will see many more people cheering them on. By the time I reached First Avenue in the 2016 New York City Marathon, the crowds that had been described to me as being like Beatlemania were more like an indie club show -- passionate but many fewer people.

The average runner doesn't have to think about whether the time clock will still be up when she crosses the finish line or whether there will be enough food and water at the end. She will get her finisher's medal -- something a slower runner might miss out on. Slow runners also often lose out on amenities given afterward, such as cold towels or foil wraps.

5. You might cherish milestones more than faster runners.

Before running the New York City Marathon in 2016, I volunteered at the Staten Island start line the previous two years, helping with crowd control at the race corrals for the four waves of runners. A good number of the runners in the first few waves -- the faster runners -- were tense and high-strung, while a lot of the runners in the later waves were loose, smiling and just happy to be there.

For slower runners, every day offers the possibility for a personal record. Because I started running late in life, I don't have the hangups about aging that others do when it comes to running. I am on an upward -- not downward -- spiral. The person who ran a 5K in 19 minutes at the age of 25 is painfully aware that she can't do it anymore at 40. On the other hand, I know I've got nowhere to go but up!

6. You'll soon feel like a "real" athlete -- and discover you can do things you never thought possible.

In July, a couple days after I finished my second triathlon, I ended up in the emergency room after a fall off my bike on a routine ride in Central Park. I was very concerned that my hip and leg injuries would keep me from doing this year's NYC Marathon. When I asked the attending physician when I could start training again, she said something about how "you athletes" always want to get right back at it. Even though I was in severe physical pain then, I was extremely pleased that she thought of me as an athlete!

Since that time, I have fully recovered and am on track to run the marathon again. But if I hadn't experienced all the adversity and challenges I had as a slow runner, I might not have recovered as quickly. The resilience I built up as a slow runner will help me get across the marathon finish line this Sunday.