I ran a local half-marathon on Saturday. I was impressed with myself. I ran a personal best for this distance, taking 25 minutes off of my previous time. I would like to say that I worked as hard as anyone on the course for my finisher’s medal.
But I didn’t.
There were quite a few on the course working much harder than me for the same prize. I started passing them where the 10K course rejoined the half-marathon course. Sweating, panting, struggling to keep putting one foot ahead of the other. Many of them overweight, more than a few wearing “Biggest Loser” or “Ft. Wayne’s Smallest Winner” T shirts. Wanting to say the hell with it and go home, but wanting the accomplishment more. Human spirit overcoming adversity, personified.
And there are those out there who would say that I, and all those slower than me, should have stayed home, simply because what I did in 3 hours could have been done by a decent runner in under 2.
I can only respond to that with, “Dude. Seriously. Screw off.”
I came across an article called “The Slowest Generation” (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324807704579085084130007974.html) complaining that many races are becoming “parades” due to lack of competitiveness among younger runners.
Wrong. We are very competitive. We just don’t compete with YOU. We compete with who we were yesterday.
Past the first 10 finishers, very few really give a damn what your precise rank among race finishers is. Most people simply go by comparing their own time to the winners time. Quite a few more go by how they did today against their time on a similar course or the same course last year.
The article notes that average times are getting slower, but somehow misses the massive increase in numbers of participants over the same time frame. These new runners are not the elites that ran track all through high school and never slowed down. They are your couch-to-5K people. People who were told they couldn’t do it and it took them to the age of 25 or 30 to stop listening. People like me.
Yes, we may well be mediocre athletes. But mediocre is the stepping stone between nothing and something, the first step on the road to greatness. I would rather be a mediocre athlete in the eyes of the elite than to not be an athlete at all.
If un-timed 5Ks while being pelted with colored cornstarch is what it takes to take someone from not an athlete to at least an athlete of some sort, awesome. If you need to push yourself against the best to know who you are as an athlete, cool. They have races for that, too. I have tried and failed to qualify for a number of them. And in most cases they don’t care what your rank in the pack was at your last race. You have either a set time to complete the course, or you must finish in less than double the winner’s time.
It must also be considered that there are ways to push yourself that do not involve going faster than everyone else. Can you complete the course in a weight vest? We had two soldiers complete Saturday’s half in 50-pound rucksacks. I know one man who bear-crawled a 5k for charity.
Being an athlete is not about ability. It is about force of will and pushing yourself to be better every day. It is about stepping up to a challenge that you don’t know if you can handle, spitting in its face, kicking its ass, and then looking for a tougher one. Which I will continue to do. Perhaps at a parade-ground pace, but crushing challenges that I would miss if “faster” were my only goal.