Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The diamonds establish the ugliness of the rough

Lately, in my noble quest to find better versions of Eighties songs to imitate on my keyboard, I've been getting distracted by wily YouTube algorithms and diving far down the rabbit-hole of Diamond League, Olympic, and World Champs distance races going back 20 or more years. I've watched, not for the first time, most of the world record races in the men's and women's 800 meters on up to the 10,000 meters.

One predictable effect of this is reinforcing, in purely numerical terms, how slow almost all of us are in comparison to the best of the best. I can see, for example, that I would have just missed getting lapped twice by Kenenisa Bekele, Daniel Komen and Haile Gebrselassie if you could superimpose their fastest track 5Ks onto my own. I can see just how quickly I'd fall off the leaders in a 2:03 marathon even at my lifetime acme, when I, like many of you, was fast enough to win a flurry of podunk 5Ks and use such metrics as an excuse to start a worthless blog.

But that's just math, and such differences are dry and quantifiable and therefore forgettable. Watching these videos has a far more insidious effect on the subconscious in that exposure to a steady stream of truly gifted runners devalues the running of mortals, even mortals most people would think of as fast.

Runners like Tirunesh Dibaba, Wilson Kipketer, Seb Coe and Hicham El Guerrouj look like they should be running. They cover ground in a manner that is so graceful, and deceptively effortless-looking, that it's easy to imagine them being powered by actual motors rather than hyper-efficient drive-trains, immensely powerful and well-tuned engines, and all manner of illicit drugs.

Think of being 10 percent slower than any of these athletes (and please humor me in my referring to distance runners as athletes). Take the 10K as a useful starting point. A man who runs 10 percent slower than Bekele's 26:17 world record is still a sub-30:00 performer, and that's pretty damned fast -- good enough to be considered elite by ill-informed observers.

But when you consider how wonky something can be and remain within 10 percent of a real or imagined ideal, you start to understand how some people can be "really good" in spite of "imperfect"  form. It's actually a straightforward thought exercise. Take a hypothetical human with an ideal motor, someone with fantastic cardiac and circulatory and muscle-mitochondria specs as well as ultra-smooth form.Now take an imaginary baseball bat to that form and cripple it by 10 percent. It might be turning him into someone who's pigeon-toed or splay-footed, or adding weight where it doesn't belong, or creating such a pitiful bucket-sitter that he looks for all the world like a duck with its ass on fire.

And remember that this is still a 29:56 guy. Good enough to win more 99 percent of 10K road races held in North America.

When I watched the video I recently posted of the 1988 indoor high-school state championship 3,000 meters, I was thrown by how slowly it looked like everyone was running. I mean, we were at least the best kids in an admittedly small state, right? But in fact, we were running slowly. Running 36- to 37-second laps on a 200-meter track? That's 20 to 25 percent slower than the best 3K runners in the world cover those laps. It looks shitty for the same reason someone playing nine holes of golf in 45 strokes looks shitty: he's a shitty golfer.

When I was a 51-minute 10-mile guy and a 2:24 marathoner, I unconsciously internalized the idea that most of the people around me at least looked like they belonged out there. Obviously, this parade of mzungus was never going to be mistaken for world-class talent; 5:00 to 5:30 pace is barely moving in a straight line when your running lens doesn't admit of sloggers and idiots like me who once averaged 20 miles a day for basic lack of general life ambition. But if nothing else, few of the people running within 10 to 15 percent of the leaders in a real race like the Boston Marathon look like they jumped in from the sidelines a hundred yards back up the street on a dare.

When I started to slow down in my late 30s -- little of which I spent training or racing seriously anyway -- I began to notice, quite apart from the vexation of inevitably declining speed per se, that a lot of people around me were especially ungainly. A lot of them pretty much looked like staggering, oversized galoots. Some of them even appeared to be trying to run ungracefully. I learned that you can run 5:30, 5:45 pace for a while and look like someone a just deity would yank off the road with a giant celestial cane, accompanied by a booming cry of "STOP THAT PATHETIC SHIT!" I'm not making any character judgments here, just passing along some data -- filtered through a cynical lens, to be sure, but at least partly objective.

Such realities factor strongly in my ongoing reluctance to train at any level significant enough to result in even the slightest degree of soreness. People who move at my paces who "look like runners" are the exception, not the rule, and almost all of them are under 14 and female and destined for some measure of ├ęclat. I really don't need to be reminded that, at my advanced age, I might still be determined to pump damaging amounts of effort into something I never should have started doing in the first place where others could actually see me. It's one of the reasons I prefer running at night, and not just because I'm in a running mecca; it's got to be a disturbing sight, stripped of context, to see someone who looks like me bumble-fucking his way along, mouth agape and sucking in air that will never be enough to offset the apocalyptic shit-show of an everyday idiot feigning "fitness" or "endurance" or whatever euphemism you have handy for "look, it thinks it can move."


  1. I get what you are getting at but given the alternatives, or being a it that doesn't move is not a preferred option.

    1. That's why I keep trying to find this zone where I am running a lot and getting my fix, yet am somehow isolated from the temptation to not mix it up in races. This, as you well understand, is kind of like trying to kick a nasty booze habit while spending increasing amounts of time in bars with Barney Gumble types.

  2. There's always gonna be someone prettier at your high school. That's not a good reason to stop going to school.

    1. Actually, I've been repeatedly asked to stop showing up at high schools, no matter how pretty I insist that certain attendees there are. Point taken, though.