Jessica Robertson was the new mom of a one-year-old daughter when she lost her job. The stress of losing an income and caring for a young child felt insurmountable. A family member suggested she try running to help her manage the pressure of attempting to figure it all out. Robertson laced up her sneakers and ran.
Six months into her training she took to her first 5K. Robertson cried through most of it but was lured back by the feeling of accomplishment that the finish line brought her. Robertson had completed 5Ks, a 10K and a half-marathon before toeing the starting line of the Pittsburgh Marathon in May.
Robertson's race was going well until the half-marathon route split from the full marathon route. She found herself at the back of the running pack, alone and panicking. A quick call to her mom roused up some courage, and two miles later, she met slow-paced runner Laura Mazur. The two women supported each other for the remaining 12 miles and finished the race hand-in-hand. Their finish line picture, which quickly went viral, is a beautiful reminder that while there's certainly inspiration in winning a race, those who are first to the finish haven't cornered the market.
Their story of camaraderie isn't uncommon for BOTP runners, who often finish after the crowds dissipate and many organizers pack-up provisions. espnW talked to a few slow-paced runners in hopes of celebrating their dedication to the sport.
Mirna Valerio started running in high school to improve her performance in other sports and stuck with it because of the way it made her feel. "Running helped me have a great relationship with my body, and its power and capabilities," Valerio said. "I always feel better, both physically and mentally, after a run. It has brought me a tremendous community of people, and it, um, keeps me sane!"
After completing several road marathons, Valerio took to her first trail marathon -- 26.2 miles on unpaved terrain. As she crossed the finish line the Race Director and co-founder of NJ Trail Series, Rick McNulty, congratulated her by challenging her to do a 50K race the following year. "That was beginning of my obsession with ultrarunning, and it's his fault. I fully appreciate his belief in me and his ability to look me in the eye and challenge me beyond my wildest dreams."
These days Valerio dreams big, having completed 10 marathons including New York City and Boston, and ultras as long as 100K (over 62 miles!) with plans to go even further, including a 100-mile race.
Nora Haefele was enjoying non-competitive 10K walks but wanted to improve on her workout. So, at age 54, she signed up for her first 5K race and got hooked. "The people I met kept me coming back. The running community is, for the most part, welcoming and inclusive," she said. "They don't care if you're young or old, fast or slow, thin or fat. They're just happy you love what they love." Haefele found her groove in the half-marathon distance, 13.1 miles.
Now at 62 years young, Haefele has completed 91 half-marathons and over 200 shorter races. Last year the Race Director of the Jim Thorpe half-marathon in Pennsylvania presented her with the "Heart and Hustle Award," in honor of her grit and willingness to keep showing up -- and sometimes finish last. Haefele plans to finish her 100th half-marathon in December.
Latoya Shauntay Snell was inspired to start running when her friend signed up for a half-marathon. She originally saw running 13.1 miles as a bucket list item, until an early morning run found her meeting members of Black Girls Run! (BGR) and changed her whole perspective. The women gave her a free clinic in running essentials.
"Their cheers were so infectious on the course that I wanted to be a part of it, said Snell of BGR. "Through their sisterhood, it helped me fall in love with running culture. Through running, I created lifelong bonds and it helped me gain trust in women that I lost years prior to fitness."
That trust came in handy when Snell was overcome with nerves and found herself crying halfway through a 10K. She had a built-in crew of women there to support her. Some slowed their own pace to help her. Others worked with her to get her breathing under control and coached her through run/walk intervals. And many of the BGR women comforted Snell with stories of their first races. With the finish line nearing, Snell decided to pick up the pace. One of her new running buddies ran beside her, shouting, "go, go, go." When it was over, the BGR runners asked when Snell would be signing up for a marathon. Snell laughed her off, but said her friend "planted the bug that pushed me into marathons and ultra races."
Now Snell, also known as the Running Fat Chef, has over 100 events under her belt including 18 marathons, ultramarathons and a dozen obstacle course races. She intends to complete at least 12 marathons this year, and her first 100-miler by the end of 2020.
Making running an inclusive sport
Events haven't always been welcoming to slow-paced athletes -- it's been co-runners and organized support systems that helped many BOTP athletes through their respective courses. But that's changing. According to Valerio, organizations are starting to realize that the BOTP population is "good for the bottom line and also for increasing the visibility of the sport."
However, as the debacle in this year's London Marathon on May 2 proved -- where BOTP runners were allegedly fat-shamed by contractors and volunteer marshals, with one woman reportedly receiving chemical burns from the clean-up operation that began around them -- there is still plenty of room for improvement.
When it comes to welcoming slow-paced runners to an organized run, setting a time cutoff is key. Valerio suggested that organizers need to "be very clear about cutoffs. Be sure to publish this information as early as possible on the race website. And please let people down gently and humanely if they don't make a cutoff."
"If you keep the finish line open for 4 hours, don't close the water tables and remove course marshals after 3.5 hours," Haefele said. "There is often a disconnect between the time the finish line closes and the time course support is removed. I've gotten lost at races when course marshals left before I got there, even though I was on pace with the time limit."
Snell pointed out that it's not just about being inclusive. It's also about being safe. "If we are running within the time limits, we are deserving of the same essentials as our fellow fast to mid-pack running friends It's not just about making us feeling welcome but a matter of safety."
Valerio is encouraged by fellow runners putting forth efforts to be more inclusive, recounting that "some folks couldn't hide their surprise that I was there [in the past] -- either because I was black, or I was fat. But now it's not really an issue." And there's still work to be done.
"People love speaking about inclusion but have no idea what it actually looks like," said Snell. "One or two sprinkles of one group doesn't make you inclusive." She, along with the other runners interviewed, echoed that races need to make sure that their marketing is representative of the true diversity of people who are interested in the sport -- people of all sizes, ages, colors and abilities.
Snell added: "Showing a range of people from different backgrounds or even asking people to share their running stories is an easy way to connect the community through their similarities and differences. "