Why you should train with runners who are faster than you: my story

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Most age group winners I now compete against have run track and/or cross country in high school and/or college, so they literally have decades of experience and running base under their feet. I only started seriously running when I was 45. I ran one meh year of high school track – 800 meters and 400 meter hurdles, mostly to keep in shape after gymnastics season – my real passion at the time. Our high school track practices were a joke. Come to think of it, I don't remember practicing much. I just recall showing up for a few track meets, winging it and doing okay (which, in retrospect, makes me think I should probably have stuck with it).

To work my way out from the middle of the middle-aged pack, I had much to learn and a lot of catching up to do – literally and figuratively.

Zigging instead of zagging

Me and some of the PRTC ladies at last year's Mayor's Cup

Me and some of the PRTC ladies at last year's Mayor's Cup

Last year, I decided I was going to do 3 things to help me push my running to the next level: hire a coach, get my USATF coaching certification so I could help others, and run with a local competitive team.

Philly is home to so many running clubs. There is literally something for everyone: social running teams, charity running teams, theme running teams, beer running teams, running store teams, etc. Philly also has a talented masters running club. You would think it would have been the obvious choice for me.

But as someone who tends to zig while the rest of the world is zagging, I decided to try something truly unorthodox: run with a bunch of crazy-fast young guns. This is because my main goal is not to become a better masters runner, although that's certainly a given. My goal is to defy categorization and become a better runner. Period. 

Plus, I like to occasionally try things that scare the crap out of me.

Caboose on a bullet train

The Philadelphia Runner Track Club tag line is "Philadelphia's fastest running club." This is not empty bravado: it's flat-out true.

Five of the club's members have run the Olympic marathon trials. One member is an elite runner, sponsored by Brooks. Our members consistently win races, podium in their age groups, and collect sundry other accolades. The club gained enough attention to pick up Puma and Philadelphia Runner as sponsors. All this said, I was thrilled and somewhat surprised when they welcomed me with open arms. On a personal note, I was especially tickled because most of the members are in their 20s and 30s – young enough to be my kids. 

In some ways, it's been a natural fit; our mutual love of running and racing is strong glue. In other ways, it's nothing short of hilarious. This team is bursting with runners on an elite/Olympic development track, who have lined up at race starts with the likes of Neely Spence Gracey, Molly Huddle, Alexi Pappas, and Kate Grace. I was happy last year, at age 51, to consistently see 6:XXs in my race paces for the first time in my life. I jokingly refer to myself as the "Caboose on a Bullet Train."

Not to be totally self-deprecating, I know I'm no slacker. I work hard and thanks to age grading, I am not always the caboose. I've scored USATF points for my team. I have won numerous age group awards and have run or bettered All-American silver or bronze standard times for my age group in the mile, 5K, 10K, 15K, 10 mile, half marathon and marathon. But I am still nowhere near the level of these speedsters. And at age 52, I likely never will be. I've made a lot of progress since I started running, but I still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. Part of why I joined the team.

Getting past intimidation

I am one of two masters runners on PRTC, and the only female master's runner. I'm not going to lie. The first few months were super intimidating, even though everyone was and is sweet, welcoming and encouraging. I remember the first time I met up with the women for 5 miles of mid-week speed work last summer. I was happy I could keep up with them for one mile. After that mile, I had to finish my workout alone because I could not hang on at that blazing pace. I wondered for a New York minute if I had made a mistake. Then, I decided to stick to team track practices and easy runs.

At Tuesday night track practices, for about 5 months, I ran my own workouts alone while the speedsters did their own thing, shouting out "Good job, Dynise!" as they breezed by me, hitting paces that might have earned them speeding tickets on the highway.

typical scene from a PRTC Tuesday night track workout.

Now that I have gotten faster, I often have company for track workouts. Let's be real, it's still not an even match. This week, for example, I ran 800 repeats with Laura, a sweet medical student whom I would guess is in her mid 20s. We zipped around the track at 6:32 pace, and she asked me a question as we rounded the curve. I was sucking in air like a Dyson vacuum cleaner

"Can't. Talk. Now." I choked.  "Will. Talk. When. We. Rest."

It's memories like this that sometimes make me laugh out loud. I'm so glad I stuck it out. I have certainly learned more from these women and men about running than I did from my high school track coach. Maybe it's time to take another shot at the midweek speed session?

How running with faster people can help you 

  • The Group Effect. Contrary to popular belief, the Kenyans are not phenomenal runners because of genetics. In How Bad Do You Want It (an excellent read), Matt Fitzgerald explains that it's due to the Group Effect, or more specifically "behavioral synchronicity." Basically, when people work together at something difficult, like doing a tempo run, zipping through 800-meter repeats, or working together in a race, their brains release more mood-lifting, discomfort suppressing endorphins than they would release if they were doing the same workout alone. This affects both perceived effort and response to pain. I have found this to be true anecdotally, as well as in my own personal experience. The Kenyans work, live and train together. Plus running is to Kenya what football is to the United States, so these athletes are getting doses of the group effect at both micro and macro levels. Even if my teammates and I are all doing different track intervals and repetitions on Tuesday nights, depending on our abilities and on what races we're training for, we are all putting in the work together.
  • Inspiration. Putting in the blood, sweat and tears is only part of improving as a runner. I have been awestruck and inspired by my teammates' infectious work ethic, hunger, and encouragement. I see firsthand how much work they put into running, It's a common denominator: they bend over and gasp for air after hard track intervals just like I do. I also see how dedicated they are in spite of busy jobs and schedules – they show up for track workouts in the rain and snow. They push themselves and each other. They encourage each other, including me, and genuinely delight in each others' successes. This is truly contagious.
  • Faster runners want to help you. Think about it. Wouldn't you want to help a runner who is slower than you get faster? When my coach asked me to try to run the All-American bronze mile standard (6:44) for my age group one night for track practice, Sam Roecker graciously offered to be my rabbit. Sam was the 8th American, 19th overall woman in the New York City Marathon. Thanks to her pacing, I ran a 6:40. She was happy to help me be successful. (Incidentally, Sam was not breathing heavily after running a 6:40 mile. probably, because she ran the entire marathon at a blazing 6:19 pace, 20 seconds faster than we were going.) 
  • You will probably get faster. Yes, there is the adage, "To get faster, run with fast people." Some of this improvement is physiological. I occasionally accompany teammates on "easy" long runs or midweek runs. Their idea of easy and mine are two different things. But my body adapts as I keep up. I also think something inexplicably magical also happens. It's almost tribal. Positivity is certainly infectious. While it's never been proven that speed is infectious, for now, I am going to believe it is. 

So run with people who are faster than you. Younger than you. Run with people who intimidate you, nice as they may be. Stick it out, and you will definitely emerge stronger in spirit, and probably stronger in body, as well. 

Then pay it back and run with people who are slower than you. (More on that in an upcoming blog post) I promise, you will learn from every single person.

Do you routinely run with people who are faster than you are?