There’s a perception among recreational runners that one of the main things that separates us from the elites is the ability of those at the top of our sport to tough it out, to endure more pain than we can. The thinking goes that folks like Paula Radcliffe, Meb Keflezighi, Martin Lel and Deena Kastor are willing to push themselves harder than we are in order to make the most of their abilities.
This, my friends, is a myth.
To a one, elite runners are possessed of incredibly efficient cardiovascular systems. Their lungs and hearts work in concert to process and deliver oxygen and blood to their overtaxed muscles at a rate that the systems of mere mortals simply cannot achieve. That’s just simple genetics. But, like the rest of us, elite runners still have to put in the miles to train their bodies for the specific demands of running five, 10 or 26.2 miles at the ragged edge of their abilities.
However, the combination of their membership in the lucky sperm club and their training does not make these athletes any tougher or more determined than you or me. In fact, I submit that in some cases it makes them weaker. I’ll give you a prime example. I ran a half marathon recently on a course known to be quite fast, with just a couple of hills in the beginning and another couple in the last mile. Much of the second half of the race is run within 20 or 30 yards of the Atlantic Ocean, and the winds can be brutal. On this day, the weather gods were in a particularly foul mood and delivered swirling winds of 25 to 30 miles per hour to go with a temperature of about 29 degrees (F) at the start.
I was in good shape and had hoped to set a PR, but when I saw the weather forecast, that plan went out the window. I ran my goal pace for several miles, but the wind in the second half took its toll and I ended up coming in about three minutes slower than I had originally hoped. But I was still very happy, given the conditions. And all of my teammates and the other runners I talked to after the race told similar tales of just gutting it out and being determined to finish strong.
So I have to say I was a little less than impressed when I read a newspaper account of the race the next day and saw that one of the elite women had dropped out in the third mile because it was too cold. She complained that her muscles were tight from the wind and cold and she didn’t think she could win. So she bailed.
I’ve seen this happen in a lot of races in the last few years, from 10Ks to major marathons and it’s something I’ll never understand. To me, it shows not just a lack of commitment but a lack of respect for the other runners in the race. What if athletes in other sports thought this way? Imagine the boos that would rain down on Tiger Woods if he pulled out of The Masters in the middle of the second round because he hadn’t slept well the night before and he was six shots back. Or if Derek Jeter just decided to hit the showers in the seventh inning because it was raining. They’d be ridiculed, and rightly so.
So why do we put up with this from elite runners? I can only assume it’s because track and field and road racing isn’t a major spectator sport, so the athletes know that the consequences of quitting are few, if any. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that these runners should keep going if they’re actually injured or ill. No one would advocate that.) But I’d love to hear what some of these elites would have to say to the runners who spend months training for a marathon, knowing they’ll be out there for four or even five hours and that every step of the last few miles will be pure agony. And yet they push on and finish the race, because that’s what they set out to do.
In my estimation, those runners are the true elites. The ones who put every ounce of energy into each race without any chance of winning are the real tough ones. One of my teammates once described our coach—who was a sub-2:15 marathoner in his prime—as a pure guts runner, a guy who raced Bill Rodgers, Greg Meyer and Alberto Salazar step-for-step despite having a fraction of their natural abilities. To me, that was about the best compliment you could pay a runner. So here’s a little suggestion for the so-called elites who can’t be bothered to finish a race they’re being paid to run: Ride the sweep truck back to the finish and sit and watch the real runners finish. What you’ll see is the heart of our sport—the pure guts runners.