Slow Starter

Many, many years ago — when my kids were little and Joni was in pre-school — I had a trivial but interesting experience running with one of the other dads there, the father of one of Joni’s friends. I don’t remember how we got started talking about running, but we must have had enough in common to think it would be a good idea to try a five-mile run together.

So one Saturday morning when the kids had a play date, we left the kids in the care of their moms and headed out for our run. I knew based on our previous conversations about races that I was quite a bit faster than him, so I was prepared for (and expecting) a nice leisurely pace. Imagine my surprise when after a few dozen meters I found myself struggling to keep up with what felt like 6:00-mile pace. Although my body resisted and complained, I hung on, wondering how I had so badly mis-judged this other guy and rapidly shifting my expectations for the run from an easy jog to a vigorous tempo effort.

But then within a kilometer or so, the pace began to slacken, and I began to feel much more comfortable. My companion had settled down and was no longer flooring the accelerator. After a mile or so, I’d guess we were running close to 7:00-mile pace. The next couple of miles passed uneventfully, but then we started slowing down A LOT. I felt like I was jogging, and had to consciously force myself to slow down to avoid opening a gap. Meanwhile, my companion was breathing heavily and had stopped all the previous small talk. It was obvious he was hurting. We finished the run at maybe 8:00-mile pace, and I thought “That was interesting.”

Talking about it with him afterwards was the most interesting part: for my companion, it had been a very normal run, and he even said he wasn’t aware that the pace had been especially fast at the beginning. That struck me as bizarre.

There’s a reason this story has stuck in my mind all these years. It gave me the idea that there are fast starters and slow starters, and that I was a slow starter. I’m reminded of that fact now because recently I’ve been limiting myself to very short runs, often on tracks, and I’ve had a lot of time to think about my slow starts, or more specifically, about how I feel at the beginning of a run and how that changes as I get into it.

Basically, when I first start running I feel pretty horrible. My legs feel heavy and uncooperative, my gait is stiff, and my limbs uncoordinated. I seem to lack all skill for running, and it takes a good bit of effort not to stop, go home, and take up another hobby more suited to a dignified old age.

When I run on a track, I’ve taken to timing every 400 to document how slowly I run when I’m first starting out. Even on a good day, my first lap takes me well over two minutes, and my pace is easily slower than nine-minute miles. As I continue to make circuits of the track, I don’t make any special effort to speed up, but it happens without any conscious inclination. After a few laps, I’m running about 7:30 pace, and after ten minutes or so, I’m running close to 7:00 pace. And it doesn’t stop there; it seems the longer I run, the quicker it gets, finally stabilizing at about 6:30 pace. If not for the caution I have about running more distance, I feel like I could keep going.

The thing is, and maybe this is finally the point, I’VE ALWAYS BEEN LIKE THIS. Even back in the day when I was a young, fit, and fast, the beginnings of every run were so slow that my first mile would easily lag by a minute or more the pace I would average for the entire run. Ever since I can remember, I’ve been a slow starter.  I wonder why?

At the beginning of a run, I question everything, and my mind is filled with doubt that I can complete that day’s planned effort. Even a three-mile run seems long and beyond my ability. After a few minutes, it’s not quite so bad. After ten minutes, the fog has lifted and the sun is shining again. After twenty minutes, I feel like a runner and it all seems to easy and natural. If I could figure out a way to avoid this daily drama I would, but it seems to be part of my programming.

This afternoon I’m meeting some folks for a short run, and I’ve decided that I need to get there fifteen minutes early and do a warm-up so that I don’t impose my snail-like start on them. It seems silly, unnecessary, and a bit overly self-conscious. But being a slow starter is also a bit embarrassing; it’s a little like having to get out of bed and face the world before you’ve had your morning coffee.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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One Response to Slow Starter

  1. Robin says:

    Interesting discussion.

    There was a threat on Runningahead about how long it takes to warm-up, and most of the comments were in terms of 20-30 minutes – some even longer.

    It takes me about five minutes to go from a little chilly to comfortable, and about ten to feel that I’m running more easily, but I’ve started to do a 2.4 mile jog prior to intervals or races, as I too have noted that it takes something like that to be able to maintain a good pace. I used to think that it was because that third mile of my usuall route was a little flatter than mile one or two, and that might be part of it.

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