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What “good job” really means to the struggling runner

Sometimes the good intentions behind often-repeated race-day slogans get lost in translation

Woman cheering

If you ever try boosting the spirits of a struggling runner by sharing an encouraging word, only to have the gesture returned with a toothy snarl or deflated sigh, try not to take it personally. That runner crashing and burning before your eyes has likely reached a mental depth where processing motivational phrases is impossible, and your good intentions get lost in translation.

Fortunately, years of dismal race performances have made me fluent in the language of failure. Should you find yourself saying one of these well-meaning phrases, only to have your words land with a thud, consider how they might really sound to the ears of a struggling runner.

runner giving thumbs up

You say: “Good job!”

They hear: “You are clearly the inferior runner.”

I’ve had strong races, and others that sputtered into a DNF. The only time I hear the words “good job” from other runners is when I’m totally tanking. That’s because there’s an unspoken hierarchy—faster runners can tell slower runners they’re doing a good job, but it doesn’t work the other way around. I’m going to tell Cam Levins he’s doing a “good job?” Who do I think I am?

Every time a runner tells another they’re doing a good job, as kind as the intentions are, it’s an acknowledgment that the former is actually doing a better job than the latter. What’s really infuriating is when you cross paths with another runner who’s clearly struggling as much as you are, and they lob a “good job” at you. “You’re ‘good jobbing’ me?! If anyone should be ‘good jobbing’ anyone, I should be ‘good jobbing’ you!”

It’s especially soul-crushing to be the “good jobee” in an out-and-back race, when you hear a swelling chorus of “good job”s as runners pass you, and then get treated to an encore as they double back to the finish line. And something I learned just this weekend after blowing a race in Mexico: “¡Buen trabajo!” is “Good job!” in Spanish. It sounded much more romantic, but it didn’t hurt my heart any less.

not the home stretch

You say: “You’re in the home stretch!”

They hear: “You’re nowhere near the finish line.”

Strong and struggling runners define “home stretch” differently. To the former, it could be the entire second half of a marathon. To the latter, if the finish line isn’t within spitting distance, you’re not in the home stretch. This harmless phrase is meant to bolster shaky runners through that final, tough push of a race. The struggling runner, meanwhile, reasons that if this really were the home stretch, it would be obvious to everyone, and there’d be no need to declare it as such. It’s as helpful as hearing, “You’re at the start line!” as the race begins.

For runners who are having a really tough time of it and are in a particularly snarky mood, “You’re in the home stretch” can also be translated as: “You don’t know the distance of this race you’re running right now, even though you signed up for it, and you’re obviously unable to read that giant GPS watch on your wrist that’s tracking your distance.”

injured man

You say: “Pain is temporary, glory is forever!”

They hear: “You look absolutely horrible.”

This one’s usually reserved for runners who, at best, look like they’re not going to finish the race, and at worst, are a short step from oblivion. It’s the Hail Mary of motivational sayings, directed at only the most desperate of souls. To the struggling runner, it simply underscores what horrible shape they appear to be in. An alternate translation: “Please keep moving so I don’t have to look at you anymore.”


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