Knuckleballer Wilbur Wood started 49 games for the 1972 Chicago White Sox, the most games started by a pitcher in the major leagues since 1896. For those who don’t keenly follow baseball, few pitchers, if any, start more than 35 or 36 games in a single 162-game season. What, then, is the point and just who is Wilbur Wood?
He’s a nobody, of course, a quirk in the long statistical history of quirks in baseball. Odds are that starting 49 games and pitching 376 innings in a season is not impressive to anyone. Baseball fans from that era likely remember Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton and Catfish Hunter as being some of the best pitchers of that era.
So far, so good, but I bet starting 49 games in a season isn’t as impressive as running 49 marathons in a year in 49 different states. I also bet that more readers of this Web site have heard of Dean Karnazes and Sam Thompson than Evans Rutto, Felix Limo or even Paul Tergat. More readers, I imagine, have heard of the twin schemes of running 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 states than of Haile Gebrselassieis’ intention to run the Berlin Marathon, or have even the name Haile Gebrselassie.
Far, or Fast?
Popular running culture values doing something far more than doing something well. There is no doubt that running 50 marathons in 50 days is a very athletic accomplishment, but how impressive is it really? Running 182 miles a week at 9-minute miles, the speed at which Sam Thompson reportedly ran his marathons, is not exceedingly impressive. Running 5,000 metres in less than 13 minutes, on the other hand, is infinitely harder. Those who do the latter can no doubt do the former, but the former could not do the latter.
Two days before this article was written, a man named Kenenisa Bekele beat a man named Isaac Songok over 5,000 metres. Both ran 12:48 (Bekele won by less than half a second), a pace of 2:33/km or 4:07/mile. Ignoring the mainstream media (which would never mention this feat), likewise it receives no breathless mention on message boards or running blogs in the way that “marathon maniacs” like Thompson or Karnazes receive.
The habit of recreational runners is to run progressively longer races until they reach the supposedly ultimate goal of completing a marathon and proudly become marathoners, apparently the second-highest honour accorded a runner short of “Boston qualifier”) the third-highest being the obscure title of “Olympic champion,” awarded to no-names like Ezekiel Kemboi, Kelly Holmes and Stefano Baldini).
Running one marathon or a dozen is not that impressive. It takes very little ability to run a marathon in the 21st century, and even less training, it seems. It would seem pedantic, petty and pointless to ridicule recreational runners for pursuing the goal of running a marathon. I myself would like to hike to the base of the Grand Canyon and back though I care very little for hiking in general.
However, the orientation propagated by the running industry (yes, there is such a thing) is that running far is better than running fast. Most runners, I will generalize, are more impressed by a poorly-run marathon than a well-run mile, more in awe of a succession of so-so marathons than a single really fast marathon.
There will be no line-up commending the toughness of a running blogger who, feeling as though he was giving birth while simultaneously having a heart attack, ran a 4:30 fifth kilometre to dip under 23 minutes for 5k. A few will congratulate him for being “super speedy,” sure, but by and large, the first-time marathoner who casually ran for four or five hours will be inundated with praise.
Pushing the Limits
Training hard and pushing the limits of human performance are not on the agenda of the happy-go-lucky running blogosphere. In this hyper-sensitive environment and others, such as message boards, where the aim is to be so inoffensive as to distil all writing to virtually nothing, everyone wins for doing anything. The only performances considered impressive are the freakish and the insignificant. Septuagenarians, ambulatory circus acts, arbitrarily defined “continuous” runs and the like constitute impressive athletic achievement. A rare afterthought are those considered fast by any conventional measure, known euphemistically in a single unified blob as “the elites,” “the Kenyans” or “the Africans.”
The lack of emphasis on performance is, of course, welcome for those who put into the sport what their lives allow and harbour no aspirations of competition, friendly or otherwise. However, that running fast is by and large a taboo topic in popular running culture except when done by “the Africans” no doubt limits the achievements of many ordinary runners, not to mention an appreciation of the wonderful achievements of world class runners.
If the most impressive running achievement of which many runners are aware is running 50 marathons in 50 days, not a single one run in 2 hours and 4 minutes, the loss is truly and certainly theirs. Look around and follow high-level competition, be it local or global, on the road, track or elsewhere, for the incredible performances of real, live human beings. Watch a local road race to see who the winners are, turn out to high school or collegiate track meets and definitely catch a major road race or city marathon to see who wins and how fast they ran. Be a fan of the sport, it is yours in the end.