Thursday, April 2, 2009

Fast or Slow, Who’s To Know?

Speed is relative, that we know. Unless you are in the top 1% of the best athletes on the field that day, or have aspirations of carrying home a trophy, an age group award or a moment of public recognition, there really is no incentive to try so hard to race your very best, when it’s obvious that there will always be someone who finishes ahead of you and behind you in every race, unless you’re striving for your own personal goal. From that perspective, comparative racing terms such as fast and slow really ought to have no meaning, if you’re really racing for your own sake. To put it in another way, if we were to enter a race with no other participants, and we ran in accordance with our own perceived effort with no garmins, watches, or digital clocks, would we know if we were running fast or slow that day?

I’m been thinking quite a bit about that the last couple of weeks after two new members in my running club was introduced to me earlier this month on a group run and as if on cue, the first words out of their mouths were “Oh wait, yeah I know you, you’re that really fast guy right. No I can’t run with you…” It was at least annoying if not bordering on the totally inaccurate. First of all, they can’t know me, since I don’t know them. Yes, they might have heard of me, but even if so, since when does hearing about someone (celebrities not withstanding) equate to knowing someone. Secondly, since fast is a relative label, how do you know I’m fast (much less really fast) without knowing the company I keep or people I race against? In my world, 2:50 marathoners are fast, 2:40 guys are really fast, 2:30 people are sub-elite, and 2:20s are the truly elite, and since I’m not even within striking distance of fast yet, I feel quite uncomfortable being associated with those guys. Finally, I resent the fact that just because I fit a certain stereotype because of an inaccurate perception that others have of me, I am ostracized because of my speed. Arrrgghh…this drives me crazy because it is so contrary to why I train myself to run fast in the first place.

If you cared to read over my list of “why I run”, the first reason I listed was to be athletic. And while it’s true that I get some personal satisfaction of being now considered a good athlete when I was always ordinary at best in every sport I’ve tried previously, that was really only a secondary endpoint. The primary reason I train so hard is to be fast enough to run with everyone else. Ever since I could remember, whether it was snowboarding, go-kart racing, or canoeing downstream with friends, if we were out there for long enough, I was always the one bringing up the rear. On some level, it was not only embarrassing but also somewhat dangerous because I’d at times fallen so far behind the pack that I’d get lost finding my own way back. Needless to say, this traumatized me to no end growing up, and to this day, I will not go camping or hiking with friends without having a set of directions on me at all times.

That is at least part of the reason I’m motivated to run fast. I just do not want to ever be forced to bring up the rear again. I want to keep up even if it’s a group of Kenyans (or those blazing Central Park Track Club guys) that I happen to be running with. But by the same token, I will always adapt to the slower runners because I’ve been there and can empathize very readily with the helpless feeling of not being able to keep up. This is always a tricky situation for me. I struggle with having the confidence of a good distance runner while at the same time hoping to never forget how to enjoy myself if I have to run a little slow either. It’s really an up and down, ebb and flow, kind of dynamic relationship with me and speed. But truthfully, for me, I wouldn’t really want it any other way.

After some thought this week, I think that’s the mindset I want to bring with me to Boston. I want to race fast enough and well enough to justify my training, “to keep up with the guys” so to speak, while at the same time, run slow enough as if I’m hanging with the back of the pack out on a long run to enjoy the excitement and the scenery. I don’t know if this is the right attitude to have as someone preparing to break 3 hours in a marathon, but in order not to psych myself out by making the race something bigger than what it already is (it’s Boston for god sakes!), I believe it’s the most appropriate one for me.


joyRuN said...

Fast/slow is definitely relative. I think relative to the general population, you're freaking fast!

It's when I compare my times to other people I know that I get deflated. While I think I'm making progress, it doesn't take long for me to get discouraged when I stalk other runners at - my race times are pathetic compared to theirs.

You'd think I'd learn a lesson, stop comparing already, & appreciate the gains I've made for myself.

But then again, it's that disappointment that makes me want to work harder next time.

Running and living said...

Thanks for the advice about the marathon! Much appreciated!

I think we all have our subjective definition of "fast", which changes as we improve our running speed. I never compare myself with other runners, because, as you say, there will always be lots of runners in front of me. That's OK with me. For me it is important to be able to be mentally tough during the race, and push through. That, aside from good training, is one of the few things I have control over when it comes to racing.

Anonymous said...

Speed is relative. It is hard not to compare yourself to others, I think it is natural. However, since my college playing soccer days (a time when every aspect of your game was compared to others) I have grown away from it. I still check on others, but I don't let it take away from what I have accomplished.

Spike said...

my default answer is that I'm not fast because there is always someone faster than me, but there are also always people slower than me.

you raise an interesting question--albeit not directly--which is: can you be the fast running with the pack guy and the hanging back to help others guy at the same time?

how much of your personal training can/must you sacrifice when you run slower to assist other runners without harming your training for a specific goal?

because the truth is, if you only help runners who are slower, you won't just turn around and pr. the body responds to challenges and can normalize distances/times.

I believe helping other runners is important for every runner--regardless of speed. I also know that challenging yourself is a huge part of running. where is the balance? great post!!

Xenia said...

Ditto Joyrun's comment, word for word.

Jess said...

The very first race I ever ran, I actually did come in LAST. I got beat by an 8 year old and a 90 year old speed-walker (ok that dude was FAST). I can totally relate to always getting left behind.

I never come in dead last anymore, but I think it's a tough balancing act to make sure you are challenging yourself (and not being complacent), to "keep up", and also to just run for yourself and only compare your runs to you.

Ms. V. said...

I love this post. Your humility amazes me!

Jamie said...

I agree with everyone else :) It is human instinct to compare and each person has their own definition on what is fast/slow, good/bad, etc.

I think you are in a great mindset for the race you want to have in Boston.

Susan said...

I can't really add anything brilliant to what other people have said, except that the glorious part of running is that you define "fast" and "slow" for yourself. To some, an eight minute mile is sloooow, but to others, that's blazing. And usually, there are plenty of other people who have the same definitions as you.

Michelle said...

Speed is so relative. Hey I ran a 9.03 mile the other day and i was ecstatic over it. Sure, if I could run an 8 min mile I would flip out, but I am not sure it is in the cards for me!!!

So, for now I will be happy and push for more!!!


aron said...

great post lam and every word is so true. i have had people say that to me, and it always gets me flustered. i dont mind slowing down to run with people sometimes and i certainly do not think of myself as "fast", there are SO many my age very much faster than me. like you said it is all relative :) i like racing myself and my goals and i always keep that in my mind.

lindsay said...

speed is totally relative. i have always thought you to be fast though :) i'd be intimidated to run with you! try not to take it offensively. sure there's always room for improvement but i don't know anyone (/read anyone else's blog) that's right on the sub-3 bubble.

i love hearing about other runners and their excitement to run an x-minute mile, no matter the pace. you gotta be content enough with yourself to strive for goals and still not beat yourself up too much along the way.

loved your thoughts here, especially the part about wanting to be able to run with anyone!

carpeviam said...

I agree with Spike, that there is always someone faster than you, always someone slower than you.

What is it in our psyche though, that makes us feel embarrassed or awkward when someone pays us a compliment? That person was indirectly complimenting you by stating that you were "that really fast guy." Based on HIS sense of the term, you ARE really fast! I have definitely had the same feelings when it has been said of me.

I say, run YOUR race at Boston, and let everyone continue to compliment you. You deserve to be there, you earned it!

runner26 said...


i also think that the new clubbers might have been complimenting you. Though I'm not exactly sure what they said and how they said it.

I think a lot of runners are self-conscious about their speed, whether it's "fast" or "slow." That's probably why no matter how fast a person gets, he/she will never admit to being fast. That, and the fact that there are always others who are faster. In my mind, you're faster than many, and I think of you as a very talented runner. That said, you can always improve and continue to set high expectations for yourself. You've got my support all the way.

X-Country2 said...

I'm faster than I was, but I'm certianly not fast compared to the rest of the world. :o)

Andrew is getting fit said...

You need to get slower/less athletic friends! That way you can run at my pace and still be fast. ;)

Your pace is something I can only dream of attaining at this point in my life so it's definitely relative.

Marci said...

Speed is definately relative. I sometimes get too caught up in comparing myself to others. There is some benefit to this I suppose, if its makes me run faster, but like you said, there will always be someone faster, which can be deflating at times. Even elite athletes have other athletes riding coatails.

Mike G said...

I sympathize with this post. I've had some people in my running group get snarky because they think I run so fast to embarass others - it's not about that. It's just fun to be fast.

Run For Life said...

It's always nice to hear other people's thoughts on speed. I also think that it's relative and certainly see what you mean.

The primary reason I don't race a lot is because to me I am bloody slow and I hate when people are all about, "what time did you run?" Since I'm competitive it gets to me so I prefer to race against myself.

That being said, I like running with people that are faster than me because it pushes me and if I can keep up for at least a little while I feel good about that and I'm grateful they want to run with me, too.

I think this strategy of yours sounds like it will work. :)

sRod said...

I agree that speed is relative. Because I'm fast compared to when I started, but I'm no where near your speed.

However, I think you're getting stuck looking at speed in terms of people that are faster than you. Do you realize that you regularly finish in the top 5-10% of the races you run? That means you are faster than most other people (unless you happen to always run races with really slow people) and therefore you are fast.

Buddy, you are speedy. Embrace it.

Shilingi-Moja said...

At least on some level, there will always be only one fastest and one slowest at any given distance. All of the rest of us are both faster and slower than someone else.

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