the runner’s theory of relativity

586I was in Mexico the last weekend of March for a wedding and for the first time ever didn’t pack my running shoes for vacation.  While I didn’t do any “training,” Reader #1 and I snorkeled, walked on the beach, and swam in the bay.  We also ate a lot of seafood, drank a lot of margaritas, and even danced a little at the wedding (and my knee held up fine).  Partly by design, and partly because of circumstance, for those days I was about as far from being a runner as I could be.

Once home, I got back to work—I did a 45 minute elliptical workout and rode my first two outdoor bike rides of the year (90 minutes each).  All three were tough and my knee still aches, especially up and down steps.  I keep telling myself I’m in better shape than I was earlier this year, though I keep feeling I’m in worse shape than any other time in my life before that.  These comparisons, to former, better, or other selves is nothing new, though it’s a little more pronounced now as I wonder if I’ll run again, and if so, how far and how fast, how close to where I was beforehand.

Sometimes it seems that everything is relative for a runner.  For example, when I read an article about record-setting ultra-runner Kilian Jornet Burgada, who can run 4 hours without breaking a sweat, 8 hours without needing a drink of water, I couldn’t help but compare myself.  Same thing when I read about his fellow ultra-runner Dean Karnazes, whose muscles don’t produce lactic acid like the rest of us, which is why he can keep on going for hours on end.  Of course, there are faster runners to compare ourselves to—the world record pace for the marathon is 4:43 per mile.  But sled dogs could run a marathon in about 80 minutes, camels in about an hour, and both the pronghorn antelope and the ostrich could cover the distance in 45 minutes.   So it’s all relative, right?

No, because running is also absolutely pure and objective.  Time, distance, and pace–those are facts as pure as facts can be, and that’s part of running’s attraction.  It’s not like some other sports, or a lot of other things in life, where you don’t really know how good you are, how you stand compared to the competition.  It is perfectly measureable–you run the distance, check the time on your watch, and that’s that.   Sure, you might run faster some days, slower on others, but when the run is over, there’s no denying the truth.  Good or bad, the numbers don’t lie.

Success, on the other hand, is relative.  On any given day, runners at any pace or distance can be satisfied with what they’ve done.  In a race the goal is to cover the distance in the least amount of time possible, getting to the finish before as many others as possible, but not everyone tries to win outright.   Sometimes after races, I like to walk back on the course to see others heading to the finish—sprinting, sweating, flailing, grunting.  Not only does it seem they working just as hard as the people that finished towards the front, sometimes it seems they’re working even harder.  And I know they can be just as happy with themselves as the winners.  Or just as unhappy.

That depends on expectations.  But what determines where a person sets their expectations?  Obviously, talent plays a part, but it’s not that simple.  I was talking with one guy at the wedding in Mexico and he said his life’s goal was to qualify for the Boston marathon.  Another runner’s goal might be to win the Boston marathon.  We all set goals, but why are some more modest than others?  Why are some people willing to work harder?  Why do some want so much they can never be satisfied?  Maybe part of being an athlete is wanting to always get better, to improve in some way.  For serious runners, while the experiences of running are important, they’re also steps along the way to bigger goals, the results of which are tied to one’s identity and self-worth.  Is this healthy or not?  Does it make the experiences relatively better or worse?  I don’t know.

Another thing I don’t know is something no runner knows, and that’s my true potential.  How fast can I run?  I know I can’t run as fast as I once did, but I mean now, at this point, what’s my limit?  I am surely limited, as everyone is, by age, muscle composition, genetics, et cetera.  But these limits are never perfectly clear.  And I think not knowing our potential is good because though we must accept limitations of some sort, by not knowing what we can do, we can sometimes surprise ourselves by doing better than expected.  Not only is this a great feeling, the possibilities of life, not just running, but all of life, open up when you can say to yourself, “I didn’t know I could do that, I wonder what else I’m capable of.”

One of my favorite sayings is from Ray Kroc of McDonald’s fame, who said, “When you’re green, you’re growing.  When you’re ripe, you rot.”  In life, we never want to be ripe.  We always want to be growing, and running is a great way to do this.  Of course, it’s been almost six months since I’ve run.  Sometimes when I think about that, it seems like a long time.  For a runner in training, a day or two off is far too much.   But in a lifetime of running, six months is not that long.  At least that’s what I’m telling myself–that it’s all relative, I’m a better swimmer than ever before, it could be much worse, and if I can’t run again, well, there’s always Mexico.