The Tale of the Tail: Disregard for the unwritten rule of easy runs and what you can do about it
Most runners have a fairly high tolerance for unpleasant things. Mile intervals. Chafing. Races ending in “-arathon.”
Resilience comes with the job description, just like measuring distances in kilometers and getting mildly aroused by visibly tainted post-race bagels. Dealing with it is what we do.
But there are a couple of things that imbue us with pure, unmitigated dread—consternation so disquieting They Must Not Be Named. But that would make for an exceedingly short post, so here goes:
- Stress fractures
- Awkward pooping situations
- Spontaneous, pelvis-shattering turds
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Really, did he have to go to the poop joke?”
In my defense, (a) yes and (b) you should have thought of that before you crapped your way onto crutches.
But there’s one thing even more loathsome than bone-rupturing bowels—a pestilence so odious it makes coconut water seem like a reasonable life decision. I’m talking about tailgating.
Not the kind of tailgating that justifies brats and diet beers at 9 am on a Sunday. No, the kind that entails nonconsensual company on a run—a situation that unfolds when an anonymous stranger generously decides you will be his pacemaker for the day.
As far as breaches of running etiquette go, tailgating is right up there with fuel belts and cooling down in Lane 1.
Like its automotive counterpart, tailgating on the run is, at once, annoying and unsettling, an act of unprovoked aggression that flaunts unwritten norms in a manner so egregious you have an inexplicable urge to vocalize the word “jerk,” despite the fact that spicy Jamaican food is nowhere in sight.
We’ve all been there. One minute you’re pleasantly jaunting along, merrily ruminating about the day’s problems, your predictably lethargic quads providing a welcome distraction from that report you really ought to have finished. Then, all of a sudden, you’re jarred from your blissful disregard for the world around you.
Maybe it’s the heavy breathing. Maybe it’s the lumbering footsteps. At first you try to reassure yourself that it’s just your mind playing tricks on you, like the time it told you it was ok to eat that whole box of cupcakes because peanut butter icing was a “good fat.”
But it’s unmistakable. Someone has latched on. You have a tailgater.
If you’re anything like me, you probably feel a mix of emotions, though, under no circumstances, are you capable of expressing them to females of the species.
In this particular situation, your conflicted feelings can be described as “guilty rage” or “lamentable indignation.” Let’s unpack your juxtaposed sentiments.
First, the anger part. Your personal space has been encroached upon, not unlike when the woman at the adjacent table in a restaurant the Yelp reviews clearly labeled as “romantic” lacks an inside voice. Or, when that guy picks the urinal next to you, despite the obvious availability of a buffer urinal.
But it’s more than that. Not only has the tailgater imposed upon you—he’s done so in a manner that is at least obliquely competitive. The unsolicited company makes you self-conscious. It’s as if your boss asked you to write an email and then looks over your shoulder while you’re trying to compose your thoughts.
Actually, scratch that. Your boss isn’t looking over your shoulder; she’s looking over your shoulder while tapping out the exact same email on her phone, in an active effort to upstage you. In daytime game show terms, you’re on the Price Is Right and the contestant after you took your guess and tacked on one cent.
The only sporting situation where you ought to feel this pressured from behind is when you’re taking six practice strokes during mini-golf. But even so, you can’t help but feel a little guilty about your reaction, too.
Running with others, as we well know, is a delicate balance between competition and comradery. Cooperating—working together—can help us each achieve our goals. We know this. But we also want to be first. Strictly speaking, it’s not necessary to be first during a training run. But loosely translated, yes it is.
We know it’s silly and yet we can’t help ourselves. It’s as if we’re eight years old again and we’re playing Monopoly. Five minutes from now, the outcome won’t matter, but we’ll flip the board if we lose anyway. (Side note: Nothing predicts future success better than childhood insufferably at board games.)
More likely than not, the tailgater just wants some motivation. If we were adults about it, we’d set imaginary rivalries aside for the sake of mutual benefit. We’d be nice. Then again, “STOP COPYING ME AND FIND YOUR OWN ROUTE, YOU JERK!”
I mean, if the tailgater just asked nicely if he could join, there’d be no problem. But imposing yourself like a sidewalk petitioner during your lunch break? That warrants a stiff-arm.
To summarize, we’ve established tailgating elicits all sorts of unpleasant, vaguely/entirely childish emotions. Yet it is equally obvious that, like potty humor in this sentence, tailgating is something you can’t avoid, bidet.
So what can you do about it?
How to handle a tailgaiting runner
For one, you need to be aware of the warning signs. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention, is worth a pound of the cure.” But it is probably also a doping violation, so you should file a TUE.
The most obvious warning sign is that you are doing an easy run. Tailgating invariably happens on easy days and specifically during the ones where you are feeling terrible. Of course, the tailgater doesn’t know this, thus you have no way of proving your unspoken superiority.
One potential remedy is to wear a t-shirt whose back says, “If you can read this, today is my easy day, so it’s not really that impressive you’re keeping up.” But that’s an awful lot of words to fit on the back of a shirt, and also, tailgaters, being booger brains, probably can’t read.
The second telltale sign is that a prospective tailgater is often, but not exclusively, wearing mesh shorts and a CrossFit hoodie. I am sorry. That is not fair. Sometimes he is wearing a CrossFit tank-top.
If you happen to notice this early enough, you could try distracting him with a kettle ball. If that fails, you could whisper something about a Tough Mudder online application opening up. But he probably won’t hear you over the EDM blaring from his fist-pumping Bluetooth earbuds.
In other words, prevention, like a professional basketball team inhabiting Madison Square Garden, isn’t realistic.
So let’s assume you’re embroiled in a tailgating scenario. There are a few options.
The most reasonable, and therefore least likely, thing for you to do is to make polite conversation. This would immediately dispel any misconceptions and allow you to maintain a comfortable, non-contentious pace. The downside is that it would entail polite conversation. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.” But he was referring to stretching and plagiarizing Francis Bacon.
Option #2 is also simple: punch the tailgater is the face. But violence is never the solution, and, moreover, it’s worth remembering you are a distance runner. The best-case scenario here, frankly, is multiple fractures to your hand.
Moving along to Option #3, we have “spontaneously altering the course of your run.” But you, being a distance runner, will not do that, lest you forgo the ability to make a down-to-the-tenth-of-a-second split comparison to yesterday’s run. On its face, such obsessiveness might seem a tad excessive, but then again, wait, is it true you can unwittingly lose a tenth-of-a-second in fitness since yesterday’s run?!
Option #4 is to turn it into an Olympic 1500m final and slow. Things. Down. Make it tactical. Really turn the tables on Jerkface McBiceps and tuck in behind him. This plan is attractive from the standpoint of the sheer surprise factor, but it has the disadvantage of having the rest of your run scented by Axe Body Spray. Also, there are probably easier ways of convincing your dad to get a matching tattoo.
Which leaves us with Option #5, your only real choice all along: picking it up. You do it gradually, almost imperceptibly, so as not to miss any of the delightful glory of his wheels unavoidably, spectacularly, gratuitously adjectivally coming off. As you work your way south of six-minute pace, his breathing becomes unsustainable. He emits several audible grunts, as if he’s maxing his bench. Maybe he tries to make a pass, in a final, futile attempt to thwart the inevitable.
But soon enough, like week-old bread if you’re frugal, he’s toast. Mission accomplished.
You get but an instant to enjoy this quiet win; essential to the triumph is never having acknowledged he was there in the first place. Perhaps, out of the corner of your eye, you catch a glimpse of him doubled-over, hands on mesh-covered knees, left to ponder where his burpees failed him.
There’s no celebration, no taunting, no victory lap. The conquest is a moral one. You taught him a lesson. You’re not anyone’s presumptive pacemaker. As the organizers of the Boston Marathon learned long ago, rabbits are best left to delivering colored eggs or as a hipster alternative to chicken.
But as you resume your regularly scheduled run, you begin to wonder whether maybe it was you who learned the real lesson. It was a stupid battle to pick. A childish waste of energy. An unnecessary injury risk on a recovery day. In all honesty, it was kind of mean and it probably says more about your insecurities than it does about his incivility. You vow to be more restrained, more mature, more open-minded the next time.
Nevertheless, deep down, you feel a swelling of pride, the sort of self-satisfied smugness that comes along with knowing you’re faste…err, oh Eff, that’s not pride, that’s not pride, that’s one of those femur-dislodging non-dairy creamers and it’s more eager to greet the crowd than a minor-league mascot with a t-shirt cannon.
Or, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “There are worse things than too much Axe Effect.”