Running Uphill: The unexpected perks of being an underdog

running_trailThis fall marks the first time in more than a decade that I will run a cross-country season.

In running terms, cross-country was my first love. Cross is gritty and unpredictable in ways that track and road racing so seldom are, and in those rare moments when everything lines up just right, it’s pure magic. I’m sure I’m not the first runner to say this, but cross is what first made me fall in love with the sport.

The thing is, it’s been a while.

I started running in the sixth grade, for reasons I still can’t quite pin down. I come from a long line of distance runners, but at that particular time, nobody in my family was running – not my dad, not my sister, not even my badass marathon grandfather.

Distance running is in my blood; what drew me to it came not from the people around me, but from deep within. In general, I default to more of the non-competitive, un-athletic type. But something about foot-racing made sense to me. I loved running. That is, right up until I hated it.

I’ve only had one fight with my dad in my whole life, and it was the day I quit running. He didn’t understand why I was walking away from the sport, and looking back, I don’t understand it either. But right about the time I turned sixteen, I tossed my shoes into the back of my closet and gave the whole thing up.

My old teammates – the most enduring friendships I’ve forged in my life – kept on running through post secondary, whether in the CIS or the NCAA. Meanwhile, I just ran away.

I don’t see the five years that I spent on the east coast as a waste of time. The tenacity and mental toughness required of a distance runner is often forged not in racing, but in some other life experience. Newfoundland was that for me. And even though I still can’t make sense of it, I think I somehow had to quit running for a little while in order to understand how essential this sport is to the person I am. But that doesn’t mean that coming back to it was easy.

The first time I raced again was in 2012. I had just moved back to Toronto, and my friend Chris signed me up for the Zoo Run. It was a 10K, but it just as well could have been a marathon for the way it felt to me. I cramped, I walked, I almost cried, and in the end, I dragged my bruised ego across the finish line, and coughed up half a lung. It was beyond humbling. I had been a competitive runner once. I used to be an athlete. How had I fallen this far?

There’s a lot to be said for the advantage of experience, of coming from within the system rather than from without. For a while after I started training again, my own comparative inexperience in racing weighed on me with the sting of disadvantage. But lately, I’ve started looking at this particular disadvantage in a different light.

I recently stumbled upon a particularly encouraging perspective in Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell, if you’re not already familiar with his writing, tends to take a broad-strokes approach to social science, looking for instances where compelling stories overlap with paradigm-shifting research. A 4:05 1500m runner back in his high school days, he’s particularly compelling on the topic of distance running. And while David and Goliath doesn’t address running in particular, it does contain some insights I’ve found especially helpful as a framing device in chasing my own big dreams.

Chief among them, the concept of desirable difficulty.

I’ve demonstrated some small degree of talent and dedication where running is concerned. But compared to the powerhouse runners who are currently shaping the sport, I’m still pretty green. I didn’t run CIS or NCAA. I’m making progress, but I haven’t clocked any breakthrough PBs or dazzling wins. I’m running solely on determination and dreams. I am, by definition, an underdog.

Socially, we’re accustomed to viewing underdog stories through a particular, somewhat narrow paradigm; that is, that underdogs succeed in spite of disadvantage because they are so capable and so talented that nothing – not injury, not inexperience, not outsider status – could stop them.

But there’s another, altogether different way of viewing these against-all-odds success stories. As Gladwell explains, “the second, more intriguing, possibility is that they succeeded, in part, because of their disadvantage – that they learned something in their struggle that proved to be of enormous advantage.”

My ultimate goal in distance running is pretty straightforward; I want to see just how fast I can get in the marathon. And for a marathoner, collegiate running experience can be extraordinarily helpful. But there’s also a silver lining to lacking this experience, especially where the marathon is concerned. It’s in the concept of training age.

Training age refers to the cumulative workload and skill level built over years of training. A higher training age implies greater experience and skill – to a point. But athletes in general, and marathoners in particular, are prone to burn-out and injury. Which is why, depending on the given athlete and circumstance, a lower experience and skill level can, at times, confer an advantage.

The concept of training age is especially useful in understanding the dominance of powerhouse masters athletes like Catherine Watkins. Watkins, who represented Canada with a gritty and unyielding marathon performance at this year’s Pan Am Games, only began running competitively at age 35.

“Obviously, she has an innate amount of talent and ability,” says Watkins’ coach, BC Endurance Project’s Richard Lee. “Her body hasn’t been beaten by 15 years of competitive running. It’s all fresh and new.”

Watkins’ success in the marathon, then, has not come in spite of her lateness to the game, but precisely because of it. Coming to distance running as an outsider conferred upon her myriad disadvantages, sure. But at least one of these disadvantages, counterintuitively, turned out to be desirable.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off,” Gladwell explains. “We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which those kinds of material advantages limit our options.”

And Watkins isn’t alone in reaping the benefits of her underdog status. Canadian marathoner Leslie Sexton, who smashed her marathon PB to clock a 2:33:23 finish and 2nd place in the Canadian Marathon Championships a few weeks ago, entered the race as a comparative dark horse.

After a series of less-than-ideal marathon performances, it seemed that Sexton had effectively been counted out as a contender in the national running scene. In a post-race interview with The Terminal Mile last week, she was asked whether she considered her under-the-radar elite entry to be an advantage in the marathon.

“I think it was a bit, yeah,” Sexton says. “Not having to do the press conference and stuff like that, it gave me a little bit more spare time just to kind of relax and do my own thing. I spent a lot of time in the hotel room, just keeping my mind off the race.”

Viewed as a non-contender in the elite field, Sexton was free to approach the race on her own terms, without the external pressure felt by other, more established elites.

“I certainly don’t mind being an underdog,” Sexton says of the experience. “I kind of thought going in that maybe I had an outside shot, if things went well for me.”

There’s no disputing the advantages conferred from being the horse to bet on. But what we often miss in our assessment of these circumstances is the considerable benefit that comes from having the freedom to perform poorly.

When I studied politics in university, what fascinated me the most in every election were the fringe candidates. Often, the people who know they cannot win are the ones who are able to speak the most freely. In distance running, the pressure to perform pushes you to train and race conventionally; outsider status lets you break all the rules.

And there is no better venue for unconventional racing than the cross-country course.

I fully expect to finish dead last at AOs and Nationals – which is precisely why I am so excited to run them. I can’t run for time, and don’t have the experience necessary to have any realistic conception of what running for place might look like. Even if I did, cross races are unpredictable, chaotic, and volatile. Which is precisely why I fell in love with them in the first place.

The challenge of clawing my way back to fitness after a years-long lapse in training is, to me, a desirable difficulty. Like coming to the sport later in life, or running a series of disappointing races, it’s precisely the sort of underdog experience needed to forge that signature, distance runner-brand of tenacity and strength.

Running cross this year is more than just a few trail races to me. It’s a declaration to myself that no matter how much time has passed, no matter how far I think I’ve fallen, no matter how defeated I may feel, there is always, always, always a way back.

Chase big dreams.

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