Backwards Running Festival

Results of PVTC Backwards Running Festival

  • July 9, 2022, 7:23 PM EDT By Gaya Gupta for The Washington Post
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  • For these runners, the only way forward is backward

  • Aaron Yoder, a head track and field coach at Bethany College in Kansas, runs backward on Saturday in a demonstration for attendees. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)

    When runners competed in Alexandria on Saturday morning, they couldn't seue the finish line. Instead, sprinting backward, they had only their instincts and their teammates to guide them.

    Fourteen runners, ranging from ages 12 to 69, competed in what organizers with the Potomac Valley Track Club say is the first backward-running track meet held in the United States. On the oval track at Edison High School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, they raced in the mile, 100, 200, 400 and 800-meter events — all facing astern. A handful of competitors ran every event.

    The unusual-looking sport is gaining popularity in the United States as casual and competitive runners who train backward are starting to realize it can be gentler on the body, said Bob Draim, one of the organizers of the Saturday's meet.

    Draim and Aaron Yoder, who holds the 5:30 world record for the backward mile, started discussing the idea for a track meet dedicated to backward running more than a year ago.

    Draim half-jokingly said that he looked up how many people ran in the Boston Marathon when they first started in 1897 — 15 people, which means even big races start small, he said.

    "So this is the beginning, and hopefully next year will be a little bigger," he said.

    When the starting pistol fired, the sprinters shot backward from their initial forward-leaning positions with hardly a glance back. Few, if any, runners throughout the meet looked behind their shoulder, instead relying on the track's lines to guide them. The competitors — most of them seniors — were almost completely upright as they raced, their strides springy and light.

    Elizabeth Hancock laughs as Joanne Shabelski holds her hand after a dash during a backward-running track meet in Alexandria, Va., on July 9. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)

    Two runners fell backward in the middle of their races over the course of the meet — but that's rare, said Draim's wife, Ida. The sport requires an acute awareness of one's surroundings as well as a focus on balance, which often minimizes the risk of falling.

    "The more I relax and get into the zone of the running, the faster I naturally go," she said. "It really has its own Zen to it."

    About four years ago, Bob Draim was preparing for a 10-hour surgery to treat a second recurrence of neck cancer. Running a backward mile was on his bucket list. The surgery went well, and Draim has continued including backward running in his training ever since.

    But getting Ida to try it was not easy.

    "I thought it was the silliest-looking thing I've ever seen," she said. "It looked so strange that I was really reluctant to try."

    Fourteen runners competed in Alexandria, Va., on July 9 in what organizers say is the first backward-running track meet held in the United States. (Video: Gaya Gupta)

    Ida Draim underwent hip-resurfacing surgery in 2017, but pain in her hip flexor persisted, and it often flared when she ran ordinary 5K and 10Ks. But after a few months of consistent rearward training, she said she was able to compete in those races with ease.

    Now, the couple goes on backward runs every week at the Mount Vernon High School track.

    "We are well-known to a bunch of other adults who do forward running," she said. "They always point to us as the ‘backward running people.' "

    Many of the runners competing Saturday said they pursued backward running following injuries.

    That's how Yoder, the current world record holder for the backward mile, found his way into the sport. He had first tried the exercise as a high school athlete looking for a challenge, running backward on a treadmill in his Kansas home. Years later, following a knee injury, Yoder's doctors recommended he stop running altogether. But he wanted to stay active, so inverted his stride. Soon, he broke the record.

    Perspective: "I just ran 135 miles in the middle of a polar vortex"

    Lena Cromley, who normally struggles with knee pain, decided to start training a week out from the meet when her dad sent her a video of Yoder.

    "It's different, you feel like you're falling backward," the 21-year-old said. "I'm excited to see how much faster I can get because I've only been training a week."

    Unlike traditional track meets, Saturday's races were far from competitive — many agreed that the backward running style allowed them to focus more on breaking personal bests than competing with each other.

    This relaxed mentality is part of the sport's appeal, said Yoder.

    "Running communities are really awesome, but this is even better, because you're really vulnerable out there," he said. Since everyone's relatively new to the sport, the runners are quick to support and cheer each other on, he added.

    Backward running has also been a practice in confidence for many of the runners. Instead of worrying that the sport looks ridiculous to a passerby, Draim said he takes pride in the exercise.

    "It's a good feeling to know that you can do something that you think is good for you and not really worry about looking funny," he said. "In our experience at the track, once people have seen it, it's not a novelty after the first few minutes. And so for the most part, people don't even notice."

    Yoder added that the sport also has allowed him to take a break from the "forward-driven" mentality that prioritizes success and goal-setting he said is prominent in today's culture.

    "Instead of looking at how far you need to go, sometimes it's important to see how far you've come in life," he said.

  • By Gaya Gupta
  • Gaya Gupta is a transportation reporting intern in the Metro section for The Washington Post. She is studying English and computer science with a focus on data science at Brown University.
  • Source: Washington Post