Two Kinds of Races

Martin, my brother-in-law, approached me with a proposition.

He is a banker in the Caribbean, and we were down there for a family vacation (and yes, the beach!) The way he put it to me was like this. 

He explained: "One of my co-workers at the bank was a good 800 meter runner in high school, a sub-2 guy, and he was talking in the lunch room about how he would love to race again. So, I told him you were a runner and that you were coming down."

"Yeah," I said. (Sub-2 is pretty fast, but hey I did that, too.)

"Anyways," goes Martin, "We put together a group of five guys. A relay. We thought they could each run 1000m and you could run 5000m. You could take them on. What do you think? This guy wants to run against someone fast."

"Sure," I said, without thinking about it too much, not really ever being one to turn down a race.

This was one kind of race. A runner against five untrained non-runners. I would come to learn before the race that they were all young (4 in their early or mid-20s and one my age) and that they had athletic backgrounds, if not running backgrounds. 

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been concerned, but as the day of the race grew closer something happened to me that I suppose is a reflection of the narrowness of human vision. I began to worry. I thought irrational thoughts: like "1000m isn't really that far" and "5:30 pace really isn't that fast." It's not really that these are irrational thoughts for a runner like me -- in fact, these are truths that my whole running experience is built on. A thousand meters is not even a warm-up. Or, it's one of a half dozen intervals. Five-thirty pace is a tempo effort; it's controlled. This is my world, the world of a half-way talented runner who has been at this gig for 20 or so years.

But in the larger world, which includes Caribbean bankers and many many other things, those are highly irrational thoughts. A thousand meters is a hella-long way to run. And five-thirty pace is a wild and uncontrollable rhythm. To the world at large these things are as foreign as, say, dunking a basketball is to this five-foot seven-inch guy with toothpick arms. The pleasure I take in running hard is as strange as, well, the life of a Caribbean banker might be to an academic in the humanities. What's totally reasonable in one sphere looks like wild-eyed lunacy in another. What we mistake for reasonableness is the habit-worn cut and cloth of our own comfortable lives. 

So on a fateful day, last month, in Barbados two worlds collided -- or put better, they missed each other entirely. The race was over as soon as it began. There was actually no race at all. The runner ran and enjoyed himself. He went quickly. The non-runners ran and suffered. They went less quickly. Such is the nature of things.

Afterwards we embraced somewhat awkwardly and posed for a picture. As if we had run together, as if the difference between the reasonable and the strange could be eliminated so easily.

Good guys who had no idea what they were getting into.

This is why competition is so different from domination. Competition is about equality of power, much more than it is about difference. This last weekend I raced at the Music City Distance Carnival. It was another kind of race. I was among my people -- they were everywhere. 

Thin wrists, rippling quads, hungry eyes, gaunt faces, we all milled about the place together, we unique breed of human beings. Most of the runners there were actually much faster than me. But the meet -- like all meets -- was organized according to seed times. People of similar abilities got together and raced. We all knew what to do: we hurtled ourselves around the 400 meter loop until the dark edges crowded in and the legs burned and the lungs heaved and a bell rang. With 200 meters to go, we kicked like devils, honoring the man closest to us by doing our best to beat him.

After the race we stumbled around, caught our breath, and then were happy. Then later, we talked to the others about precious seconds squandered, about moves made and not made, about who beat us and by how many fractions of a minute. At the end of the meet, we ran back and forth across the infield, yelling as a group of ten or so of the best of our breed hurtled around the track. We gasped as Matt Elliott crushed the last 200 of the mile run, grimacing as he cut through the Nashville night on his way to a 3:57. 

We all knew what we had seen.

This was Matt Elliott breaking 4 for the first time, at the Music City Distance Carnival in 2011.


  1. What a great idea, I can remember a Cosby show like that, when he (Bill) and his 3 collage track team mates meet their old rival collage team... All old men now they plod round the track, till Heath Clif has to run the last leg and they have a big lead, and instead of the him beating his old rival, a young Olimpic 400 girl takes the batton for the other team and catches him in the last 100m...

    Othes races are always fun...

  2. "we kicked like devils, honoring the man closest to us by doing our best to beat him"

    Two completely different worlds, dude in the blue shirt appears to be pissed that they got beat and everyone else is happy.

  3. Jeff,
    You are on to something with your idea about competition requiring the risk of defeat. I would also say many folks insulate themselves from facing the realities of their own abilities intentionally or unintentionally. It is possible to win overall in many rural places with 6:00min mile pace times creating a false impression of significant ability. Running for me has always been one of those sports where the better you get the worse you realize you are(and the more respect for those at the top you gain).

    I think the personal challenge of becoming a life-long runner for me has been recognizing the need to race against myself at the current place I am at and not others. My old coach used to always say, " if you race against yourself you can always win but if you race against others you will always loose". I am not claiming some abandonment of competition or even my desire to stop running races but that good running competition should be part of the process of self-improvement towards current goals....and who knows even in your domination of those 5 runners you may have spurned them onto greater personnel motivation to self-improvement.

    as always a joy to read,

  4. Great post. Love that sentence about honor!

    I wish I could have raced MCDC, but I had a marathon in San Diego the next morning. It was fun watching the mile on Flotrack afterwards.

  5. "What we mistake for reasonableness is the habit-worn cut and cloth of our own comfortable lives."

    just wanted to say that was my favorite line until i got to the honor line, but since everyone else mentioned the honor thing, i'll go with this... the truth of it is stark.

    thanks for this good piece, jeffer.

  6. Thanks everyone for the kind words. It is nice to be writing again!

  7. We all knew what we had seen.


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