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, July 17, 2018

If unrestrained yammering met startling-line caution

The first piece of writing a magazine ever paid me for was a back-pager in Running Times in the spring of 1999. It was called "Good Cheer," and met the criteria for a humor column, not a high bar to clear in the running world then or now. I don't think it was ever posted online; Running Times didn't even have a website until a few months later (in part because of a cybersquatting issue, a tale for another day and other commentators).

The premise of the piece was that well-meaning fans and even coaches often give not only sketchy and sometimes bizarre advice, but contradictory advice. Over the years, as both a young runner and an observer, I'd come to appreciate how badly race-about-to-start nervousness could contaminate the minds of even seasoned running counsel-givers. My first cross-country coach would sometimes urge us to establish a front-running position early in the race while also "running within ourselves." This was no 22-year-old dingbat hauled from the teachers' lounge because he was lowest on the totem pole and no one else would coach the team; he has been a solid D-III runner himself and went on to coach for a long time. But even then I wondered how to reconcile conflicting mandates like these.

I was a spectator at the 1998 New England High School Cross-Country Championships, which were held 20 miles down the road from me in Derryfield Park in Manchester, N.H. Louis Luchini won the boys' race (and would go on to place second at Foot Locker Nationals the next month) in what I think was then a course record or close -- 15:25. But the thing I remember most strongly was some guy, possibly a coach but more likely a dad, screaming at his son as the kid rounded the last hairpin turn into the 150-meter uphill homestretch: "HURRY UP, JOHNNY!" Like he was urging his son to finish taking out the trash so they could leave for school on time.

This was the catalyst for my thinking about all of the logical impossibilities people have thrown at runners right before or during races. Like...

"RUN YOUR OWN RACE! AND WHEN THAT GIRL MOVES, YOU MOVE!"

"DON'T SPRINT UP THE HILL, BUT YA GOTTA MAKE YOUR MOVE ON THE CLIMB!"

"GET OUT QUICK AND WORK  YOUR WAY TOWARD THE LEADERS!"

"HANG BACK! BALLS OUT FROM THE GUN!"

So I wrote an essay about it. I was reviewing this topic recently on a cool-down run with some of my Run Boulder AC teammates, and a couple of them almost fell over laughing (mostly because they  were tired), so you know this wry reality about running fans resonates with everyone.

Now consider the things your fellow racers tell you on the starting line of road races when you ask  them their plans. Some, of course, are honest and state a goal time. But a lot of the  faster people are demure to the point of absurdity, sometimes mixing bald-faced lies with bona fide self-deception.

"How you gonna run this one, Sue?"
"Oh, just wanna see how I feel with the heat. I don't think I can even break 6:00 for a mile right now." (Sue proceeds to run an 18:30 5K)

"Hey Timmy, you still looking to run 2:37?"
"Hell no. Anything under 2:50 would be great."
"Didn't you just run a 1:12 half?"
"Yeah, but the miles just aren't there this year. I'm being conservative."
(Timmy goes out at 5:30 pace, hits halfway on pace for 2:30, winds up DNFing at 20 miles)

This is a different reflection of the same phenomenon: nerves. When you're nervous about someone else's race, you just throw at them whatever unrestrained bullshit you can come up with, regardless of the coherence of the whole delivery. When you're nervous about your own, you for all intents and purposes tell anyone who asks that you've downgraded your expectations to the lowest possible level.

So imagine what would ensue if overexcited parents and coaches started yelling out the same things that they'd be telling people, or at least thinking, if they were the ones about to race or just leaving the starting line.

"THAT'S IT, JOHNNY! YOU'RE JUST NOT FIT! I KNOW YOU WERE THIRD AT STATES LAST YEAR, BUT JUST TRY TO FINISH THIS ONE OUT!"

"HEY, TIDE RUNNERS, EASE OFF! LOTS OF PAVEMENT! RUNNING IS HELL ON YOUR KNEES!"

"BE VERY CAREFUL ABOUT SUDDEN AGGRESSIVE MOVES! YOU MIGHT CRAP YOUR PANTS! IT'S ALL  ABOUT HAVING FUN!"

"JUST TRY TO NOT FINISH DEAD LAST! HA HA HA!"

Based on current societal indicators, I have a feeling it won't be more than a couple more generations before that stuff becomes the norm. But it would be fun in thee meantime to actively encourage it along.


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