Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Plight Of The “Ordinary” Athlete

As a pediatrician who specializes in hormonal disorders, I spend a large amount of my time evaluating and treating kids who bodily proportions fall outside the normal range Whether they are too tall, too short, too fat or too small, these “extraordinary” children and their parents often come to me asking if they can be made “ordinary” again. In some cases, it is an easy fix, as when the abnormal body type is caused by an easily identifiable hormone deficiency or excess. In other cases, the treatment is much more difficult, as when a cause cannot be identified. Whatever the problem may be though, it often strikes me that to those who are affected, the desire to be normal and average is so powerful yet universal that it’s impossible for those who are normal and unaffected to fully understand and appreciate their plight. Can we really know what it’s like to live life as a 7 feet woman or a 4’ 5” man? Do we have the capacity to understand if 20 pounds underweight is as good, better, or worse health-wise than being 20 pounds over? Maybe it really doesn’t matter, or maybe it does, who’s to know? Who’s to judge? I certainly am not, which is why I often do my best to help patients achieve their personal definition of normalcy, as long as it does not have undue consequences for their present or future health.

In running as in all forms of recreational athletics though the problem is exactly the opposite. The desire here almost universally is to be the fastest, the strongest, and the best. In this context, “just average” would be seen as repulsive, unattractive, and demeaning. For many runners, especially those who are elite, professional, ultra- competitive or engage in a similar mindset, the desire to be “extraordinary” or “special” and to be admired by their peers as such, can be so intoxicating and overwhelming that it often leads to extremely destructive behavior patterns. These recreational athletes train constantly, ignore pain, and set goals that are both challenging and also potentially dangerous. Unfortunately, for those who are addicted to such behavior, they lack insight to understand the consequences of their actions. They believe (erroneously and sometimes subconsciously) that the rules don’t apply to them. They believe they are “special” and/or “invincible”, sent by a higher being to motivate and inspire other runners in their quest for perfection, whatever they may be. They adopt this “me against the world” mentality that drives them to run farther or faster and to test the limits of physical exertion almost on a daily basis. Eventually, they will train so hard and push the envelope so much that one of two things will happen. They will either sustain a major injury which will require extensive recovery time away or they will suffer the consequence of diminishing returns, lose passion in the sport and quit. Either way, at that point, and only at that point will they will understand and fully appreciate the limits and frailty of the human body and know that they are just as special as everyone else who they pass on the roads, no better, no worse.

I know this because I used to be one of them. I used to think that I can get faster every day. I can run long whenever I want and the sky is the limit for me. But through the wisdom of personal experience and knowledge gained through others who had to go through a similar process, I realized now that I was naive to believe that about myself. I am not special. I am not fast. I am not sent to break records and do things that others only thought possible. Yet I still do what I can, I still have goals, I still train hard, and through that inspire and motivate other friends and family who see a little part of me in them. At the same time, I do my best to teach newer runners not to buy into their own hype and come to terms with the limitations of their bodies even as they are striving hard to achieve their PRs and personal goals. I admit, it doesn’t work well all the time, or even most of the time. But for the sake of these runners, I try anyway. I must.

I’m coming to the realization that the term “ordinary” does not have to sound like a bad four letter word. Maybe that should be the new goal for all of us. Maybe that is the new path to success, in running, in medicine, and in life.

21 comments:

Morgan said...

This is a great post Lam and hopefully one that will stick in people's minds when they are self evaluating themselves against "the norm" in their head. Celebrate your speed; whether it be slow or fast, your form; whether it be perfect or "unique", your reason; whether it be to compete or just for yourself...

Lauren said...

I love this post and it's coming at a perfect time for me. I'm not sure if this is a result of your recent "issues" with running and rediscovering the sport or if this was just a random epiphany but I think it's great that you've experienced it. Being able to run at all is an amazing gift and being an "ordinary" athlete is still "extraordinary" when compared to the "ordinary" population that doesn't engage in any physical activity. We are all special :D

Her Name is Rio said...

Isn't that the truth! When I first started reading running blogs a few years ago I thought I was super slow! Later I realized that I was probably about average. One of the reasons I started my blog was to show that there are "ordinary" people out there running too. The fact that people run, regardless of the speed, is in fact more than what many inactive people do, which is extraordinary.

pen said...

What a wonderful post--and something I really needed to hear right now. Something that athletes also need to remember is how their speed or accomplishments compare to the world at large. The more you get sucked into the endurance sports community, the easier it is to forget how amazing it is just to be able to run a 10k. With my ironman training, I sometimes complain about my "slow" 100mi bike ride. And then I realize that no matter how slow, an 100mi bike ride is pretty amazing.

No need to be the fastest. I should do it because I love the sport. Not because I love to win.

Jonathan Streeter said...

What a great post. I was thinking about all of this as I ran a half-marathon yesterday. It was an enjoyable, although at times challenging and difficult race for me. As per usual, I came in at around the 25 percentile of all finishers and about the 50th percentile in my gender/age group.

My primary goal is to have fun in this type of event. My secondary goal is almost as important, however, and that's to leave enough energy so that the rest of my day can go on as normal. I realize that by training and pushing myself harder I could run faster, but the price would be too high. I'm happy to say that I've run the half-marathon distance at least twenty times already this year and so far, so good. The day I stop having fun, and/or the day that a run leaves me feeling hobbled, is the day I hang up my shoes.

I long ago gave up worrying about whether I'm a "normal" person. On the other hand, I can accept that in some things, I'm very average. If you can't live with that reality, life could be hard indeed.

Erica Sara said...

Incredible post Lam! Thanks so much for putting into words what has been going through my head these last few days. When I first began running, my goal was simply to run for myself so I could feel strong. But lately, I've found myself competing in my head, trying to run faster and prove something, although I'm not exactly sure what. And I'm just not enjoying it as much. And this mornings race, when I ignored how I was feeling and pushed myself in the heat only to end up puking on the side of the road, was a wake up call. I need to slow down again and get back to why I love running. Thanks for the reminder :)

John said...

Great post, Lam. Guess the key point is to be the best one can be. That still takes dedication and hard work, both tempered with a view to achieving the long term goal and the discretion to know whether pushing harder will produce improvement or injury. I am convinced that each of us accomplishes this best in a community of fellow runners.

KBam said...

I really appreciate your message in this post. Physically speaking as far as running and overall fitness are concerned, I've been overweight and slow my whole life. Only within the past year and a half have I gotten myself on the right path toward a healthy lifestyle. Now, I'm still on the slower side, but I am a marathoner and my fitness level is through the roof. In no way do I want to be "extraordinary" - I simply want to be healthy and enjoy running. However, it took extraordinary lengths to get to where I am. I think there's a little bit of ordinary and extraordinary in every runner and his/her goals...

Betsy said...

I am coaching a kids' track program with my running club. My hope is that I can inspire them to be "ordinary athletes." That is, people who run for their whole lives, run frequent 5Ks, and finish solidly in the middle of the pack - loving every minute of it.

You'd love coaching kids, by the way!

Haliku said...

"...that drives them to run farther or faster and to test the limits of physical exertion almost on a daily basis."

Hmm...I resemble this remark; time to readjust expectations. Cheers!

EZEthan said...

good post... makes me stop and think...

I guess I don't train with any aspirations of being "special" but I do want to milk every last drop of potential out of myself... I do fear the diminishing returns though... I'm one year in and progressing so quickly and am not sure how I'll handle it when I finally start to level off.

Steve Poling said...

Interesting post, Lam! Thank you! I agree with you as long as people don't use this as an excuse not to push themselves to be better or to just accept mediocrity (whatever that means for each person). Based on our genetics and training (generally speaking) we all have a potential we can reach - if we want to. Since goals are so personal, it is arbitrary. I want to be the best I can be and I recommend others enjoy running and be their best.

Scott Brown said...

"God's gift to ...."

Yes, you're spot on Lam. It is something we should all be aware of.

Recently I've been riding the high mileage train (200K weeks) and fear it will all end with a nasty crash but if I jump now I worry that I may miss out on an incredible ride.

While I have some sense I don't trust myself to do the sensible thing. This running obsession can even override self preservation instincts.

This is one of the reasons I blog. I can get feedback and learn from others about what is too much and what to look out for etc. I've learned a lot from you Lam ;)

Still, I'm afraid, in the end, it will be my body that tells me when enough is enough. I just hope it does so in a more gentle way than killing me!!!

We, us runners that push ourselves, surely have obsessive personalities and it is both a blessing and a curse.

Just have to try to balance things a bit better and love those that put up with us, twice as much!

Ultrathoner said...

As an adult endocrinologist, I can relate to your experiences with patients.

As a runner forever condemned to run the back-of-the-pack, I can also relate to your experiences as a runner.

I might never be fast but I can go far. I might not be able to control the reasons why I am slow but I can control my attitude. It took me many years before I realized it is all about the journey, not about how fast you get there.

Thanks for this insightful post.

The Laminator said...

Thanks everyone for your kind words and support.

Morgan - Right On! If only we remember not to allow people and circumstances to influence how we think of ourselves, we'd all be such happy athletes!

Lauren - This post came out of no only my recent experiences but also from those around me. Whether we chose to believe it or not, running well for as long as we do is a privilege, not a right and we all should treat it as such.

Rio - Your experience is not unique. I remember feeling super slow on my first months of running too. Yes, we need to remember that even if we're just "average" to ourselves, they are many who can only dream of running the distances and the speeds that we do. So to them, we are definitely extraordinary!

pen - I totally agree. When we're training for something, it seems like we can so suck into the "numbers" that we forget how amazing we are to those who don't run, swim or bike. Case in point, I told my colleagues today that I ran 18 miles around town yesterday, and she literally choked on her soft drink.

Jonathan - Thanks for the kind words. You sure do a lot of half marathons. That's awesome! Good on you to keep your goals and not be persuaded by others to do anything different. No need to worry what "normal" is...you define your own "normal" and that should be enough. That's what makes you happy!

Erica - Sorry about your bad experience in the race. I had the same thing happen to me a week or so ago which is what inspired me to write this. I think when we get a bad unexpected result in a race, it behooves us to take a step back and reevaluate where our priorities are and what we're training for. I hope you find your love of running again =)

John - Totally right, John. I think we all have to learn to be happy with giving our very best, not the best for someone else which might be different, but our best. If we can do that, then everything else becomes irrelevant.

KBam - Thanks for making the point for me that "ordinary" is every extraordinary for some. Congrats on changing your lifestyle around and being good to yourself and those around you. Enjoying runner is definitely a very worthwhile goal for many if not all of us.

Betsy - Its so great that you get to coach track for kids. You can infuse them with excitement and happiness about running and lead them on the path to a healthy life. I do have a passion to coach kids...one day, one day...

Haliku - I think deep down, we all resemble that remark. Glad you liked it.

EZEthan - Don't worry buddy, you've got time. Diminishing returns won't hit you for a few years, at least!

Steve - Yes, I in no way am advocating mediocrity. My point is merely that our passion for speed and PRs should be tempered with a little practicality. Be satisfied with giving your best, whatever and whereever that leads you!

Scott - Thanks for compliment. I think it's a trap that we all fall into from time to time. I'm sure you have good insight into your own situation so I'm not worried about you pushing yourself too hard! But seriously, 200K weeks is a whole heck of a lot!

Ultrathoner - From one endo to another, I thank you for the compliment and comment. I think attitude is often what gets us into trouble. If we can focus on the journey more than the result, we'd all be happier and more successful in all our endeavors!

Katie said...

Wow! I'm so impressed with this post! I remember reading a post of yours not so long ago that talked about hanging up those running shoes if you weren't running as well as you wanted. Now you sound like a person who not only wants to run to get faster, but one who genuinely loves to run. Oh, and you may not be an elite athlete, but you're still fast.

RunnuRMark said...

It's great to keep things in perspective. I made a mention in my last post about my issues with never being fully satisfied with my accomplishments. I do struggle with comparing myself to the best athletes and thinking I have to work harder to be more like them. But I never want to lose my love for the sport. Good reminder to be realistic about my abilities and keep doing what I do for ME. Nice post.

J said...

I think that you were sent here to inspire other runners. You have talent and ability and you use it everyday and it allows other runners to gain insight and run better! I think at one point we have all wished we were faster but every morning I remind myself that I am just grateful to be able to get out there on the road and run!

X-Country2 said...

I really think there is honor and victory in getting out an participating. It takes courage and dedication to just cross the finish line.

Great post.

Julie said...

Hi Lam,
You will always be speedy in my eyes:) Oh, and by the way, you are not even close to ordinary!

Take care!

cg9m said...

this is a really nice post. always good to know there are faster folks out there who take a genuine interest in all of those around them, and their efforts.

 
Clicky Web Analytics