Opinion: Guts & Glory

Posted by Filed Under: Elite Running, Races & Racing

opinionThere’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.

About Dennis Fisher

Dennis is an award-winning journalist and not-so-award-winning runner. His day job involves writing about technology, which is why he runs so much. A native of Virginia, Dennis is a veteran marathoner and road racer who has recently discovered the joy and broken bones of trail running. He trains with the Greater Boston Track Club and lives outside Boston with his wife and children.

  1. 21stCenturyMom on March 26th at 10:24 am

    Dude – it’s the lucky EGG club – duh!

    We don’t “put up with it”. As you allude to, pro and elite runners have a really thin fan base compared to baseball players, golfers, football players, etc. Also, a lot of people totally tough it out for 1 marathon a year. If you are running a dozen marathons with a bunch of other races in between tossing one once in a while is no big deal, right?

    I get that those who suffer deserve a lot of respect for it but still – those who give up because this race (out of the dozens they are signed up for) won’t be good do have a point.

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  3. Old Skool on March 27th at 7:51 am

    You cannot compare Jeter to elite runners…its apples and oranges. I promise you if Jeter made his lively hood on only 4 completed games a year, and he was not going to place in the money at one of them, AND by completing a bad one he could hurt his chances for the future, he would DNF too.

    Plus, sponsors don’t pay their elites to jog in just to finish. Sponsors do not want their billboards finishing in the middle of the pack, they want results.

    And to condensend a female elite runner who dropped out because it was too cold, is dumb. A female elite runner has a body fat level well below your heros at the back of the pack. 29 degrees will affect her much more harshly.

    You need to step off of your soap box. Bless everyone who toes the line at a race. Just don’t forget, many of those elites who have inspired us over the decades because of their awesome performances produced those awesome performances because they were smart and DNF’d when they needed to.

  4. jeff on March 27th at 10:08 am

    i’m staying away from the dnf debate, because everyone is making good points in that arena (even if they are a bit heated). but i will laud those runners that are mid/back of the pack, as you suggest, dennis. i can only imagine how hard it is to be out on the course for 5+ hours for the length of a marathon. often, the weather will get hotter as the race goes on and when i’m cooling down and on my way home, those folks are still toughing it out at the same heart rate that i had through the whole race. so, yes, there’s definately an element of ‘elite’ to the back-of-the-packers.

  5. Blaine Moore (Run to Win) on March 27th at 10:47 am

    Jeff, I would not use the term “elite” for back of the packers. While I have a lot of respect for mid-to-late packers (I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be out there that long!), “elite” are the people that get paid and have a chance of setting records and winning cash. Elite equates to professional, and very few people that gut it out for 5+ hours in a marathon are going to be professional athletes. Those runners sure do have guts, though, and certainly work a lot harder than I do for a lot longer during the race.

  6. Dennis on March 27th at 5:37 pm

    @ Old Skool
    I don’t think body fat has a lot to do with this. There were plenty of rail-thin runners around me who stuck it out. And cold is cold. 29 isn’t warm no matter how much you weigh.
    And many of the elites who are sponsored and make money regardless of whether they finish typically run 2 or at the most 3 marathons a year. I know plenty of amateurs who run 5 or 6 a year. Granted, they’re not vying for the win, but it’s hard regardless. Maybe it’s just me, but unless you’re truly injured, I can’t see any logic or honor in a DNF.

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