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.