Sunday, November 1, 2009

Nattering Nabobs of Negativism

I want to take a moment from my own irritations with my cardiologist to write for a moment about the title of this week's blog and the role it has in running. For whatever reason, our sport seems to be rife with pessimists. Rather than support our elite athletes, so many so-called "fans" of running love to trash on our elite runners and predict doom and gloom no matter what an athlete has run. What's worse is that these arm-chair coaches seem to be more than a very vocal minority (though, of course, it's likely the amount of hatred stirred up on a place like letsrun is a few people using many different handles).
Take, for example, Meb's stunning upset victory in New York this morning. In the pre-race coverage, all I heard about Meb was how he was too old, washed up, and a drain on the fragile economy since he wasn't doing anything "of value to society." It's an attitude I've never understood. Likewise, most of the predictions I saw regarding Jorge Torres' debut suggested that not only would Torres fail to debut under 2:18, it was unlikely that he even had the capability to run under 2:12! Jorge was the first guy-ever- to qualify for the Footlocker Championships all four years of high school. At Colorado he was a National Champ in cross country. Since college, he's run 13:20 and 27:42. His coach, Steve Jones, is the former world record holder in the marathon and has recently resurrected the career of Jason Hartmann. Who on Earth could believe that a runner with the talent, resources, and mental toughness Torres has displayed since he was 15 years old wasn't capable of breaking 2:15! For that matter, since when did failing to hit a goal become so shameful that as runners, we set these tiny little wimp goals and mercilessly trash on people who try to do great things?
Ron Clarke once said something to the effect that it was important for young athletes to try to do something completely over their heads and not feel like they've done something unforgivable if they failed or lost. The greater shame, Clarke insisted, was that an athlete become so afraid to lose that he not even bother trying. And yet, how often does Clarke get trashed for "never winning when it mattered?" We've all seen the quote from Teddy Roosevelt about those who dare to fail greatly. Why is it that, as runners, we have such a hard time taking that to heart? The sub-culture among runners is a culture of shame and absolutism.
You see it all the time in race previews- "well, so-and-so should win, and so-and-so has no chance because he's only done x lately, and we're not even sure why so-and-so is even bothering, because he hasn't run well in a year," and so on and so on. As it was once explained to me, a good runner is like an old-timey steam locomotive: if you know what to look and listen for, you can see one coming from a long way off. Yet great performances get labeled an "upset" because, hey, the guy wasn't supposed to win. The odds said this, the results from past courses said this, the other competitors were too this. But the reason we run the races is because competition is not a math test. You can't factor in which athletes will have a career day, or what guys will react to the cheering crowd or, honestly, who is just going to get damn lucky. All 17 guys in the lead pack at the halfway mark of New York today had a chance to win. If you run the 2nd half of that race ten times, there would be ten completely different outcomes. Does that cheapen Meb's victory? Of course not. Yet, if we reduce Meb's situation to the kind of message board pleas we're all familiar with, how likely is it that he would have gotten any kind of encouragement whatsoever? Here's what it might look like:
"Hi guys, I was wondering if anyone could help me. About two years ago, I fractured my hip during a marathon. I couldn't walk the next day and I had to take off 14 months from running. I've been slowly getting back into it and over the last year I've gotten my mileage back up to where it was before the injury. I've been feeling great in workouts but I'm a little worried about running a marathon again-- do you guys think I could break my old PR, set a year before I broke my hip? I'm in my early 30s and haven't PR'd on the track for about five years."
How many positive responses would that post get? Maybe a few, but then someone would feel the need to "be realistic" and let the guy know that he's too old, too broken down, too injury prone. Maybe he did too much mileage and he's permanently damaged, maybe he's just a wimp. Fortunately for American distance fans, our elite runners don't feel the need to consult our nabobs. In fact, I'll say that in my limited experience with talking to world-class athletes, the number one thing that sets them apart from the rest of us is the confidence they have in their abilities. Perhaps the biggest embodiments of this confidence are the handful of Kenyans I've met. If one of them bombed a race, he would smile broadly and say "It is ok, I'll do better next time." If one of them ran well and still lost, he would say "Oh, I must train harder- but it is ok, next time I will win."
In the past, I've been criticized for setting very ambitious goals. The thing is, though, I would rather fail because I dared greatly then be happy to settle for tiny, incremental improvements. I will use my junior year of high school track as an example: as a sophomore, I had ran 4:32 for the 1600. When people asked me my goal, I said "oh, under 4:20, for sure." A few teammates tried to explain to me that taking off ten second chunks from your PR just wasn't realistic, that I should focus on breaking 4:30 first, and so on, and so on. Well, I ran 4:20.22 that outdoor season and, technically, failed. But if I had run to break 4:30 and run 4:27, would I be expected to be praised for my "success?" It's only a very little example- my point, though, is why be realistic? It never occurs to some people that they might fail- because it shouldn't matter. Just for another example, one of my teammates, Eric, knew last winter he could break 4:05 in the mile. How did he know that? He ran a mile the week before in 4:10, going through the 1000m in 2:31 and dying horribly. Did that race tell him that he couldn't handle a fast pace? Did it suggest his kick was poor, or he was mentally weak? Nope- although he could have drawn any of those conclusions from his race. Instead, he decided that with competition to pull him through and going out closer to 2:34, he could run 4:04. 6 days later he ran 4:03, a seven second personal best and his first sub-4:10 mile. Again, I'm not saying that either Eric or I are by any means special in this regard- I just want to emphasize the importance of belief is. As Bruce once told me, "you know, it's not the worst thing in the world to have a terrible race- sometimes, you learn valuable things."
Since I'm sick of writing about my own medical issues, I'll leave it at that for this week. This entry is long enough as it is!


  1. Peter Gilmore after the infamous 4:10 - "I could see 4:06, but idk about breaking 4:05." He only made me more hungry! Hahah. Now I just need do the same thing November 14...

  2. I never that you couldn't run 4:03, I said I didn't think you would do it that race. Unreasonable thing to say? Not in the least.