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By Dana Ayers

I’m what is sometimes lovingly referred to as a “Back of the Pack’er.” We’re the ones who feel the nips of the race sweepers at our heels, threatening to wipe us off the course for not finishing in time. We are the casual runners, as opposed to the competitive runners. Casual makes it sound like it’s my choice. Like I’m just keeping things casual with running. Like running and I sometimes see other people, because we’re non-committal like that.

I don’t look like a runner. I don’t train consistently, and I’m definitely not fast. Still, over the last 14 years, I’ve finished dozens of road races, trail races, relays, and obstacle courses. Yet I still struggle to call myself a runner because I don’t look like one – and I know I’m not alone. I’ve seen people of all shapes, sizes, and abilities finish races, but I’m not sure how widely known that is. I think it might be time we back of the pack’ers speak up proudly and start encouraging other people who feel like they can’t be part of this community.

For me, running isn’t about winning. I like to say races are like mullets: business in the front, party in the back! People in the back are just happy to be there. Happy to be doing something healthy, in a positive environment where strangers cheer each other on. You don’t have to be super thin or crazy fast to be welcomed by running. It’s there for us all.

There are many reasons why I’ve stayed in a long-term relationship with running, even though it doesn’t come naturally. For one thing, it helps me become a better version of myself. When I exercise discipline in running, I find myself making better eating choices throughout the day, or leaving my apartment a little tidier. When I finish a race I thought might be too hard, it gives me boldness to try other things in life that scare me.

Running is symbolic. It shows me I’m the type of person who can overcome things, even when I’m downright miserable. The silly signs of encouragement that people hold up during races start to work their way into my psyche and I think, Yes, my feet are hurting, because I am kicking so much butt! That sign is correct!

It’s also refreshing to have the chance to prove myself in races – to physically fight for something. I sit at a desk or in traffic most of my life, so running feeds the inner caveman part of my souls that wants to yell things like, “I have made fire!”

I won’t lie, though – it’s still a struggle, even after all these years. I have to use many tricks to stay at it. I put on my running clothes just so they shame me into actually running. I picture how cute my car will look with a new race sticker on it. I download apps that tell me I’m running from zombies (hey, whatever works, right?). But mostly, I remind myself how amazing I feel during and after races, and that keeps me training.

I’ve had fantastic adventures in some crazy races like Ragnar or Tough Mudder, but even a regular 5k can be life changing because of what you can see in humanity around you. Sure, it’s impressive to see the elite runners in the front, how fast and effortless they look. But you know what seems to cause more emotion in people? Watching the ones who are struggling at the back. The ones who are fighting obesity, who are running on prosthetic legs, or who get a DNF because they cross the finish line after the cut off. But they still finish. That is why I stick with running. I will pay good money to get that kind of inspiration any day.

So if you struggle to feel like a “real” runner, or want to encourage someone else who thinks they aren’t fast enough, thin enough, or dedicated enough to join the running community – know there’s a place here for the strugglers. The running world is big enough and welcoming enough for all of us. If you don’t fit in with the elites, there’s always a party in the back of the pack – and everyone’s invited.

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Dana is the author of the #1 Best Seller “Confessions of an Unlikely Runner (A Guide to Racing and Obstacle Courses for the Averagely Fit and Halfway Dedicated).” Dana accidentally became a runner over 10 years ago and has logged a vast array of average finish times since. She is a former White House staffer, and current military reservist.