“Not in your league.”
“Not up there with you.”
“About an hour back in the pack.”
“Not nearly at your level.”
“There it is again.”
I think to myself, another caveat, diminishment, or reduction. I’m always knocked back. Never quite accustomed. As messages pour into my inbox from runners around the world I’m consistently startled when the writer chooses to condition their perspective.
“Which level do they mean?” I often wonder.
Yes, I understand that having run a 2:19 marathon places me in an assumed tier of ability and understanding. But inside of my running soul, the brightest glimmers of my favorite PRs sit amongst a jumbled pile of athletic memories, many decidedly less shiny.
The years of passion, frustration, and injury endured through collegiate athletics.
The moments of hope and awe standing as witness to records broken at Hayward Field.
The years spent jogging barely a dozen miles a week with flagging motivation.
Or the beautiful miles covered at every speed, in all sorts of directions on paths around the world.
No number can truly portray a runner’s spirit.
I’ve known veterans who could weave lessons and memories like a fine fabric from the back of the pack, and elites who could barely describe the sport at which they excelled. I’ve seen friends enter the competitive landscape at a distinguished level and then suffer years of frustration at their inability to progress, while others ascended gradually, incrementally, and joyfully, in total anonymity.
Two friends come to mind, both of whom spent years, and dozens of marathons, stuck in the 2:40s. One went on to breakthrough repeatedly, into the 2:30s, and then the low 2:20s. The other overcame injury, self-doubt, and regrettable luck to squeak out a slim PR after nearly a decade, yet still not yet below than the 2:45 he once so desired. Does either of these men love the marathon any less? Does either of them deserve to be greeted with greater respect or deference?
Yes, undeniably, one of them has been able to race quickly on some of the world’s greatest city streets. He’s roared down Boylston and sprinted around tracks across the world. But the other can also braid stories the entire length of a long run of the moments he’s witnessed, the athletes he’s assisted and sensations he’s experienced along the way.
I too lust after low digits and look wide-eyed at competitive success, but I’ve come to see that the true measure of a racer is in the richness of the chapters that they’ve endured. I’ve met men who’ve filled passports experiencing competitions around the world, but who mostly shied away from the intensity of holding their nose to the grindstone of maximum effort.
I have a friend who speaks effervescently of the sheer thrill of racing the 4x800 inside the cacophony of Franklin Field as a schoolboy at the Penn Relays. Recalling getting trounced, even within a small school competition, his eyes lighten, his heart leaps, as he describes the sensation of his moment on that stage so many years ago. There is no bottom to the depth of his excitement contained in that memory or his love and appreciation of the sport.
Running stretches far and wide, fast, and slow. Its essence can strike a racer like lightning with the flash of victory, only to then disappear forever. Or rise and fall like the sun, stretching out for generations, without any noticeable accomplishment other than longevity.
Resist the urge to encapsulate a runner inside the confines of a digit, or assume they are beyond your echelon simply because of the difference between your numerical performance.
Instead, approach every runner with an appreciation for your shared love of a sport that can give each of us so much, or very little, the outcomes of which are often sadly often beyond our control.
Assume they will grant you the respect you grant them, as long as both of you are respecting the sport that is much greater than you both.
This essay is from Issue 2 of The Positive Split newsletter — you can check out the rest