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

Monday, April 23, 2018

A foolproof method for identifying the toughest runners

Have you ever wondered if competitive distance runners vary widely in how tough, gritty, strong-willed, gutsy, etc. they are? That is, when you scan the results of, say, a 5K race in which the times of the top 25 male finishers range between about 14:30 and 15:30, do you wonder how much of the variation in outcomes at this level are owed to basic differences in how deep into the well of effort or pain these runners are willing or able to go, versus basic differences in their fitness and ability levels? (For purposes of this post, I am talking about runners in everyday events, i.e., track races and road distances up to the marathon. Ultras and all of the "adventure racing"-style bullshit represent different species of competitions. I'm not judging the value of that bullshit, just saying it's not the same as straight-up conventional racing, although certain ultras sort of are, maybe.)

In fact, there's an easy screening tool; it just takes a few decades to collect meaningful data.

On Friday afternoon, I went to watch a late-afternoon 5K road race in my hometown, where I'm lodged for the time being. I didn't notice until that morning that the event even existed, and when I saw it on the schedule, I briefly contemplated entering. This meant nothing, as I often "briefly contemplate" doing a lot of potentially interesting or productive things despite almost zero chance of taking the slightest step toward actually doing them. After the idea of participating mercifully vanished, I decided I'd go watch instead, as it was held only a couple of miles down the road and I could work it into a less purposeful run of my own. When I messaged one of my high-school teammates, who still runs once or twice a week, about the race, he said he would do it as a bandit, so I arranged to meet him there.

In short, I saw a number of people a few years older than me who have been running for longer than I have and have comparable or faster lifetime personal bests, and are still out there giving everything they had (or a close approximation) despite being far slower and getting slower by the year, probably at accelerated rates. I saw two of my friends, both of whom I admire as much as anyone in this almost-sport and have won hundreds of races between them, pushing themselves hard on a cold blustery night to run four minutes slower than they once could. I saw another familiar face, a guy not that much older than me who once ran under 2:30:00 for the marathon, fighting very hard to run sub-7:00 pace for this thing; this guy has completed, I would guess, well over a thousand races in 40 or so years of running.

What I have confirmed in my relative dotage is something I already knew but never really wanted to acknowledge: I really don't like racing that much. Sure, when I was in high school and the chance to win team and individual titles was often at hand, "beating people" meant something. And it was occasionally fun to try to outkick or outlast people in my ability range when I had the opportunity to win this or that local event back in the day.

But for the most part, I was a time-trialer in search of quantifiable improvements. I wanted to run under 2:22:00 to reach the Olympic Marathon Trials back when the standard was that slow. I wanted to run personal bests for as long as I could. Considering that I set most of mine at age 34, after 20 years of running, I did pretty well. And when the outcome I wanted was within reach, I pushed myself as hard as anyone. I could run myself into near-oblivion if it meant accomplishing what I meant to accomplish. But once I knew I would start slowing down for good, I lost a lot of interest. And whatever my late thirties and most of my forties might have looked like had I been focused on running and training hard throughout this period or even intermittently, I was living in a netherworld of booze-benders and the general uncertainty that comes with an erratic lifestyle, so I'll never know.

Some people simply love to compete. They know they're going to keep getting slower and finishing behind people who barely look like they can move in a straight line without falling over. I try to avoid awarding points for this and instead standing in mere observation of yet one more human trait than it ascribed by nature rather than achieved through will, but I can't help but admire it because it's something I will never have. I can't buy into the idea of trying hard to perform visibly less proficiently at than I once did. But those who can and do have a linchpin in their lives that I don't. I love to run and sometimes I love to push, but I don't like regular reminders of how slow I am compared to my already unimpressive bests. Even the whole notion of masters categories is nothing more than handicapping. Talking about the fastest old people is, to me, like discussing the most honest politicians or the most ecologically sensitive oil companies or the most intellectually honest creationists; when the outcome of something is being graded on the basis of impossible-to-ignore structural limitations, there's really no point in taking the test, or at least not in studying for it.

Anyway, I am guessing that the runners in any field who go on years later to become the longtime, perennially gung-ho racers I've mentioned here are the toughest ones. But there's no way to know for sure in real time which ones will be around in another couple of decades. I have been described as a tough runner myself, but all this does is establish anew that most people's judgment can't be trusted.

Obviously, this view is my own albatross and not something I would invite anyone to adopt. I cannot help but wonder, though, exactly what it is about me that keeps me from wanting to try very hard at things I know I can't continue to improve at. I'll never be an accomplished pianist, but I enjoy messing around with my Casio keyboard because I can continue getting more proficient at it (and can hide the results, if I want to). I can still grow as a writer, although the more time I spend with this nonsense, the lower the chances of this happening become. So I like these things -- for now. I don't like failing even when no one is watching; a large part of that is probably a personality trait instilled very early in my development, and it's only exploded over time thanks to living a life marked by a far greater number of grievous mistakes than even modest successes. This attitude will continue to plague me for as long as I continue to straddle the line between fitness jogger and wannabe masters racer, and hopefully I can choose one or the other soon, because being a poser or maker of false promises is even worse than sucking at something.

No comments:

Post a Comment