A View From the Back: In Defense of Jan Brady

author : TheClaaaw
comments : 4

A back of back of packer feels sympathy for the vast middle of the pack who never gets nearly as many cheers.

If you grew up on Brady Bunch reruns like I did, you'll probably know what I'm talking about without any explanation. Jan was the middle of three girls, and was constantly frustrated. Peter never seemed to have this problem as the middle boy, but Jan had angst.

Marcia was older, prettier and more popular. It was tough to be little sister to Marcia. What made it worse was that the baby of the family was Cindy. Everything she did and said was adorable. People fell all over Cindy, and fawned over Marcia.  Jan? Oh sure, we have Jan too.

The closest experience I can come to in experiencing this in my own life is turning 40. My favorite comic/philosopher/social critic Louis CK has nailed it perfectly, "No one cares when you turn 40. You're too young for anyone to consider you old. No one volunteers to deliver meals to 40 year olds. No one says, 'I helped a 40 year old man across the street today, it felt good.' And you're too old for anyone to be impressed with anything you do either. 'Just shut up and do your job.'" 

He says it much funnier than I can relate it in print.

So here's where I think the Jan Brady syndrome comes into play in endurance sports.

First you have the Marcias. They are the elites. They actually show up to compete and win races. They BQ every marathon. They are on the podium all the time. They are in Corral A at a big race. They're awesome. And they tend to be people who are kind and accepting of the slow folks.

At the back of the pack, you have the Cindy Bradys of the world. That's where I come in. The beauty of endurance sports is that yes, it is a big deal just to finish. We get plenty of cheers at the back. I saw a sign at the Disneyworld Half-Marathon that read "I'm more impressed by the last 100 than the first 100." I missed being in the last 100 by 48, but in a crowd of over 22,000, that's close enough. I'm the really slow fat guy just pushing to get it done. Endurance sports has welcomed people like me, for whom it's about survival, not awards. It's why the finisher's medal exists. Yes, at a certain point, just completing the task before they close the course is indeed a big deal. This is where I live, in Cindy Brady town. Everyone's proud of me for just doing it, no matter how slow. And that is indeed nice. A lot of us thrive on that encouragement when we get started. It is appreciated.

But then there is this huge bell curve of people in the middle. They won't win the race, but they aren't fearing the cutoff clock or sweeper either. They run, or do triathlons, as the great mid-pack. And here's where it gets hard. They don't get to be on the podium, but there are also few people cheering them on just for doing it. All the attention goes to the obvious newbies, the strugglers and the stragglers. Yet these are the folks who train consistently, eat well consistently, and come prepared. They tend to have a balanced lifestyle and they are just as happy to finish the race as I am. They get the same finisher's medal as I do, and as the first 100 finishers do. But the mood, the tone, is different. And I can see how that would be frustrating.

A fellow BT member shared this concerning the Disney Marathon weekend. For the uninitiated, the RunDisney Marathon weekend consists of the 1/2 marathon Saturday which awards a Donald Duck medal, the Marathon Sunday with a Mickey Mouse medal, and the Goofy Race and a Half Challenge which awards a third medal if you do both races the same weekend. "I never thought I'd think or say this, but Disney puts so much emphasis on the Goofy challenge that I didn't do - because I only ran the marathon. Oh well, I just need to get better at telling myself I ran for me and no one else. Congrats to everyone who ran, no matter which race!"

I can really understand what this person is saying. I proudly wore my Donald Duck medal around the parks, to the airport, on my flight, to the long term parking shuttle, and took it off as I drove home. Plenty of us did. It's part of the fun of Disney running, you can wear your medal for days and not be a doofus. No one needs to know my time. We got lots of congratulations from lots of people. And I was one who made sure to congratulate every Goofy finisher I saw. But I can very much see how the marathon "only" folks were sort of the middle child in this affair. Everyone is so impressed with the Goofy 39.3 finishers, and so supportive of the new runners doing their first half, that a whole marathon by itself wasn't as noticeable. That is downright nutty. I vowed after finishing that I would never say just a half-marathon again. And here's someone feeling like they did just a whole marathon.

Luckily, the culture of RunDisney is so Up With People! that it mitigates that syndrome to some degree. Endurance sports really are big-tent experiences, and all speeds, sizes, and abilities are welcome. Without that reality, I would never even think of entering so much as a sprint distance triathlon.

But there will always be a few who, because of their Jan Brady Syndrome, will have to undermine the achievements of others. A now infamous 2006 article in Slate online by Gabriel Sherman entitled "Running with Slowpokes" proclaimed that, "sluggish newbies ruined the marathon." In 2009 the NY Times printed an article with claims from many that John Bingham ruined the sport of running with his encouragement of other "penguins" out there. 

As a very slow plodder who looks ahead to see even the penguins, I am glad that there is a place for me, and my experience has been that the fastest folks are usually gracious as can be to people like me. The negative comments come from people are much faster than I am, but not fast enough to be winners. This is where the Jan Brady syndrome can manifest in some negative attitudes. The people who are frustrated that they aren't on the podium want some recognition for being faster than those people in the back. They'll declare that you didn't really run a marathon unless you did it in time X. Notice that time X is almost always around the time that the indignant pontificator did it in. Triathlon has a reputation for drawing a lot of these types. Just start a thread on any site about the cutoff time of 17 hours for an iron distance race, and what it should be. Again, somewhere around where "I" finish is usually the standard. George Carlin noted this decades ago: "you ever notice that everyone going slower than you on the highway is an idiot, and everyone going faster is a maniac?"

Honestly I don't know how many of these folks there really are. It's likely a case that their negativity and nastiness are just so noticeable that it sticks out. 

The overwhelming majority of triathletes are in reality, middle-of-the-pack racers who are content to run their race without lots of attention, and they will still cheer on the Cindy Bradys in the back. They need some more cheers thrown their way once in a while too.

In my own new triathlon career, I am a definite Cindy Brady. I am large, out of shape, slow, and so far, chasing the sweep times. It's nice to have all these people cheering me on in the back, but I don't want to be the novelty forever. I want to move to the middle of the pack and be Jan.  But if I'm really honest, I have to admit I would give up something moving from the back to middle.

As I look towards next season, I don't want to be struggling at the eight and a half hour mark. These next six months I want to move past dead-last and struggling, to still slow-but-steady and strong. Still, there's a part of me that can't deny this: if I'm going to be in the bottom 10-20% of finishers anyway, I'd rather finish late enough that Crowie gives me my medal. It's tradition at iron distance races, and even at many half-irons, that the winners come back for the last finishers. I always saw myself as a last finisher, and I may indeed always be one. But there is this mass of people who cross the finish-line while the winners are still doing interviews and getting cleaned up, before returning for the Cindy Brady greetings at the end. In that vast middle, are the folks who finish in a mob, and may not even see their finish-line picture because their bib was obscured in the crowd. This is not like the bottom 1% half-marathon finisher who has pictures with Donald and Mickey all to himself. (OK, that was definitely fun. This is the benefit of being Cindy Brady.)

I have great respect for the middle children of endurance sports. No one cheers for you like the Marcias or the Cindys. But I hope to join your ranks nonetheless someday. They I can turn around and cheer on the last finisher. I'll know how it feels, since I hope to say, "I used to be there. Congratulations on getting it done."


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date: October 12, 2012


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