Life’s not fair. I’ve said it before in these pages; and in my forgetfulness, I’m bound to repeat it. If anyone doubts the truth of it, they need only to consult the victims of the past two seasons’ wildfires for proof positive. Often reminded of this saying in our youth, we bear the world’s slings and arrows more or less philosophically, finding ample evidence of life’s unfairness before we’re old enough to drive. Then we find running (or it finds us). At first blush running seems to be a hermetically-sealed system of fairness and justice, a microcosm in which one gets just what one pays for, a place where hard work is commensurately rewarded, a matter-of-fact world of numbers, where popularity, wealth and connections count, refreshingly, for nothing. Here is a world that aspires to purity, where medals and awards are revoked in the cleansing light of anti-doping investigations. Even luck, we reason, can’t touch running; what runner ever lucks into running a 5-minute mile when the best she can physically run is a 6-minute mile? She might yet run a 5-minute mile, it’s true, but she’ll need time, massive training volume and familiarity with a track to do it (even if she possesses the requisite genetics). Here, we think, is a kind of Utopia built on just the sort of soil in which our Puritan work ethic can take hold and bear fruit.
Alright, so we’re newbies. Soon enough we wake to the reality that not only is running really hard, but it’s just as freighted with inequities as the world at large. Former London Marathon director David Bedford once said that, “Running is a lot like life. Only 10 percent of it is exciting. 90 percent of it is slog and drudge.” Yes, running is indeed a lot like life; and life, we’ll remember, isn’t fair.
Our first clue that we weren’t running in the land of milk and honey might have come with the realization that we don’t gain as much cruising the downhills as we lose slogging the uphills. Anyone descending a steep downhill knows that even a free fall comes at a cost. Similarly, we out-and-back runners are at first vexed to find that tailwinds do not aid us as much as headwinds hurt us. The same stiff breeze that robbed us of breath and energy on our way out lacks even the oomph to cool us on our way back. Later, as we take our running to remote destinations, we find that at lower altitudes we don’t gain that extra gear nearly as much as we are left sucking wind at higher altitudes. The veteran runner understands better than most that physics is a cruel mistress, and that entropy is a process from which one cannot run.
But never let it be said that running doesn’t have a sense of humor. Running is quite the trickster, in fact. Coming off a winter of injury and motivational setbacks, we decide to run a test race under a self-deprecating and mock-Irish alias, just to “see what condition our condition is in.” And wouldn’t you know it, nobody else shows up, and we are mortified to be pressed by an ornery race director to accept our age-group medal as he announces—with a straight face—“Pokey McShuffles” or “Lurch O’Dawdles.” (This really has happened to friends of mine.) Conversely, a four-month stretch of text-book training leaves us feeling giddy about our chances of garnering our best-ever placing in a modest local race with predictable competition (i.e., where “Pokey McShuffles” is most likely not an alias). We arrive. And with the swagger of the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, we step from our car just as a blur of singlets and racing flats zooms by at a six-minute per mile warm-up pace. Mouth agape, we’re left to wonder just when and how our quaint hometown race went viral with the who’s who of the Front Range racing set. Forget Irish aliases, we’ll need to borrow Shalane Flanagan’s cardiovascular system to be of consequence here.
If we race long enough and seriously enough we’ll feel the sting of having left it all on a race course only to find that it was the wrong race course on which we—and the couple of veterans we prudently followed—left it. And we’ll have lost more than just the course: gone will be that series ranking we had all locked up after three hard-fought races, not to mention that cool trophy that had our name on it.
Not only is Murphy (author of that accursed law) responsible for all this mayhem, he is apparently so fleet of foot that no runner can pull away from him—and if he did he’d trip on his own laces.
Many of us have heard the morale-crushing stories of the runner who fought the good fight for 26.2 miles only to miss his Boston qualifying time by a scant few seconds—on something like his 8th attempt. Sadly, not all such stories are apocryphal. Outside of our running microcosm the letters DQ are likely to stimulate our taste receptors with halcyon memories of childhood and soft-serve goodness. In the running world, the letters DQ are synonymous with heartbreak. I for one know the unhappiness of having paced a runner who failed to make the 90-mile checkpoint of a 100-mile race. Imagine having just done something that only a relative handful of people on the planet can do—run 90 miles in a single shot—and having it not be enough. Ultra legend Scott Jurek once paced a friend to within hundreds of yards of winning a scrappy, grueling 100-mile race only to see him disqualified by Scott’s having given him a hand up after he’d collapsed with the finish line in sight.
And of course there is the ultimate hard truth: if we train long enough, intensely enough and frequently enough, we’ll watch our returns diminish as our hard training turns to overtraining and injury.
In running, as in life, the deck seems stacked against us. But at least when we run in search of our personal best, we all get to play against the same stacked deck. That sounds almost…fair.