This summer marks the 25th straight year that I’ve been running on a regular basis. Over the last quarter of a century I’ve done so many five- and 10-kilometer races that I’ve lost count. I’ve competed in 10-milers, half-marathons, 3-k and 25-k runs and every "k" in between, and enough marathons that my knees are starting to hold a grudge.
Not that I win any of these, mind you. I’ve always been a fairly mediocre runner—generally placing in the top third of any race but never talented enough to post a time that would turn anyone’s head. While I haven’t obtained blistering speed from my 25 years of running, I have gained wisdom.
One thing I love about doing road races is the fact that you can never tell who the fast runners are by their outward appearance. Sure, it’s easy to pick out the gazelles that will finish in the top five: 25-35 years old, 110-135 pounds, average height but long, sinewy legs, and not a scrap of adipose to be found. But past that point it’s impossible to guess a runner’s performance by pre-race appearance alone.
This may be obvious to you but it’s something I had to learn by experience. When I was a young and naïve runner I used to show up at the local small-town races and immediately glance around to size up my competition. Back in those days I was fast enough to always come away with some award or another and a top-five finish could score me some welcome loot. I remember one particular old guy ("old" being relative—he was probably about the age I am now) who warmed up with a slow shuffling gait and a slight limp. His upper torso tilted to one side, as if one leg were longer than the other. It took no more than a second to discount him as one of the few runners destined to challenge me at the finish line.
The gun went off and I sprinted out. The race was a 10-k and I made the mistake of trying to run it at a pace better suited for a shorter course—by the time I reached mile 5 I’d begun to drag. Just as the finish line was in sight I glanced a shuffling, limping figure out of the corner of my eye. The old man had picked up his pace and calmly sailed by as I struggled with burned-out legs and aching lungs. He became the first of many men and women with atrocious gaits and less-than-svelte profiles to beat me over the next two decades.
Here’s another story. One year at a marathon in Texas I found myself briefly running with the three-hour pacing group. Some of the bigger marathons hire elite runners to serve as pacesetters for people trying to finish in a specific time. These seasoned athletes run the course at a steady pace while carrying a sign indicating their projected finishing time. The organizers of the Austin Marathon had hired young track stars from the University of Texas as their pacers and the kid at the front of our little pack looked just like I described above: very lithe and very fast.
He was also very obnoxious. To finish a marathon in three hours you need to run the 26 miles at just under a 7-minute-per-mile pace, and for a collegiate athlete accustomed to sub-five-minute miles our pace must have seemed like we were crawling. All along the course friends of his yelled out sarcastic comments as he breezed by. "How’s that pace? Slow enough for you?" or "Dude: hang with us a minute. You can catch up to them later." Our guide played along with the mockery, feigning boredom with our slow pace and joking that it was a chore for him to not sprint ahead to the finish line.
Of course, to us the pace wasn’t slow at all. The miles wore on and our numbers gradually thinned as people dropped away. At about the half-way point I had to slow down with a side ache but was able to catch up again at about mile 22. When I finally reeled in the pace group I noticed someone was missing. "What happened to the pacesetter?" I asked one of the runners. "Oh," he replied with a smirk, "he died about a mile ago and had to walk." I finished the race a couple minutes ahead of the 3-hour group and waited at the finish line to see if the college runner ever made it. He didn’t. As a track athlete his legs were accustomed to short, fast distances, and it probably never occurred to him that a bunch of old guys at a 3-hour marathon pace could leave him in the dust.
The great thing about participating in a weekend race is that even though it is ostensibly a competition you’re never really competing with the person next to you. Unless you happen to be the gazelle leaning at the tape and taking home the trophy, you end up racing mainly against yourself. You compete against your own previous race times; against the decaying effect of passing years; against your desire to slow down and walk the last few miles; and against all the pessimism of people who think you’re wasting your time pounding the pavement early in the mornings. Your only real competition is the inertia of life that makes you want to sit on the couch instead of putting in another few miles on the treadmill. And no matter if you finish the race at the front or the back of the pack you’ve scored a victory by just showing up.
Here’s my advice: set yourself the goal this year to run a race. Every city has a dozen or so choices over the summer—get on-line and find one with a distance you can manage. Start your training by walking around the block if you have to. Talk to other runners and let their excitement for the sport motivate you. On the day of the race take a moment before the starting gun to just soak up the energy of the event. Be sure to give yourself a hearty pat on the back when you cross the finish line knowing that you accomplished what you set out to do.
And if you happen to see an old guy with a shuffling, limping gait finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack, come say hi to me.