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

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Occult excellence

This morning, I watched a short Instagram video featuring a distance runner who recently won a major international championship. This was at least the hundredth such Internet clip I've seen in the past couple of years, and adds to the canon of similar television clips and -- reaching further back into the technological Pleistocene -- VHS videos I've watched that feature accomplished runners doing impressive things.

For perhaps the first time, I was struck by the full reality of why running as it exists today stands no chance of being a major spectator draw in in the United States in particular and worldwide more generally: With distance running, it's simply not possible to immediately recognize breathtaking excellence or be impressed by what you're seeing, at least not to the extent this occurs in other sports.

A typical observer who hasn't watched a lot of baseball is still likely to be impressed by someone who blasts a bunch of 450-foot-long moon shots over the outfield fence during a batting practice or exhibition event. (In this post, I'm talking about things seen in person. Virtually all athletic achievements are diluted by television.) An even better example: If you can't immediately tell that your average high-school starting forward can't do this, you may probably landed here from another planet within the past few months -- something I can't rule out if you're a regular reader of this blog. If you're bored enough to watch a PGA or LPGA tournament or have run out of Ambien, it is similarly clear that what professional golfers can do almost at will is incalculably superior to what weekend hacks can manage, even though merely playing golf somewhat capably requires no athleticism whatsoever (a certain waddling, geriatric sometimes-Palm Beach County resident who only heaves his bulk out of his cart to take shots comes to mind).

I was at the University of Colorado track in late March one Friday morning finishing up a workout when a coterie of Buffs distance runners, several of them All-Americans, and one multi-time world 1,500-meter champion arrived for their own session. Watching them start the first of a few 1200s at about 3K to 5K effort, I mused that for the first 100 meters or so, there was almost nothing separating any of them from a merely decent specimen -- say, a 5:00 female miler or 15:30 male 5K runner -- or even aging hack like me. Almost any fit, young, and somewhat coordinated person can look fairly smooth for the duration of a 16- or 17-second 100 meters. It's the fact that the elites can keep going at this pace, some of them looking downright awkward in the process (C.U.'s top miler would not be accused of having excellent form, and he placed in the top 10 three consecutive times at NCAA Cross-Country Nationals) that makes them incredible.

This is perhaps one more thing about world-class runners that leads a lot of deluded yutzes to think that they, too, can become 3:58 milers and 2:10 marathoners one day. It's also a major reason, I think, that distance running simply isn't going to ever become a major draw in the United States. Hell, when one of the best American track runners of all time is also ridiculously attractive and becomes embroiled in a post-retirement prostitution scandal, and she still manages to not become a household name -- and folks, go ahead and ask your non-runner friends if they have ever heard of Suzy Hamilton if you're skeptical of this -- then you know that distance running is destined to remain a third-class sport at best in the public eye. To me this is a good thing, but probably not for the reasons you likely suspect.

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