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.|