2012-04-16

In Honor of Boston

As CBS News reports, this year's Boston Marathon was apparently the slowest in decades. The general narrative is that it was a slow marathon this year because temperatures were so hot. Wesley Korir won first prize with a time of 2:12:40. That is nearly ten minutes slower than last year's world-record winning time.

It is easy to get caught up in the finish-time comparisons. Ten minutes slower is ten minutes slower, after all. Perhaps many hopeful would-be winners feel that the weather undermined their ability to run the race of their dreams. For all I know, Mr. Korir himself may also feel that way.

However, it's best not to feel that way. Today, I'd like to discuss this issue a bit.

One great running story that has always stood out for me was told to me by a former champion marathon runner, whose name I will suppress for privacy considerations. This was a man whose career peaked in a sort of golden age of running, back in the late-1970s and early-80s. He won many championship races, international medals, and so forth. He was a great runner. I had the good fortune to know him in my early 20s.

One day a friend of mine asked this great runner what his greatest race was. To my surprise, he gave it a a moment's reflection and then listed a race in which he did not run a personal best marathon time. Instead, he told us the story of a marathon he ran in rain so terrible that there was standing water up to his ankles. Despite the inclement weather, he managed to finish well under 2:20. (Don't quote me on this, but I think it was a time of 2:16.)

A lot of runners - especially young runners - would choose to answer this question by telling the story of the time they ran their fastest time ever. Why, then, did my friend choose a comparatively slower time clocked in a race that was almost rained-out?

Experienced runners seem to have a good, intuitive notion around the fact that a great physical achievement is not necessarily synonymous with the fastest imaginable time. In the case of this friend of mine, he chose this race based on the fact that he managed to run a very good time in the midst of such terrible weather.

In other words, there were significant adverse factors playing against him, which he was able to overcome. The result was a race he could really be proud of. It didn't all come down to time, it came down to time-plus-weather.

The weather is not unique to one athlete or another. While some athletes may excel in hotter or colder races, these are not mere intangible circumstances. At any particular level of athleticism, the winner of a race is the one who copes best with all the myriad factors that influence the race as a whole. Some of us have better finishing sprints than others. Some of us are better prepared to run uphill than others. And so on, and so forth.

If we simply boil this all down to a finish time, we miss the most interesting aspects of the race, namely the real racing interplay among the participants.

Think of it this way: No one would ever judge the quality of a basketball game on the total points scored. True, a basketball game is decided on the points tally, just as a race is decided on the finish times. But an incredibly low-scoring basketball game may still be extremely exciting, memorable, and may involve the best actual game-play. The reason is because there are more factors at work than just successful shots. An impressive dunk is only work two points, but it will always make more of an impact in a basketball game than a simple jump shot.

And so it goes for races. Sometimes slower races involve more pace-based strategizing, but even if they don't, it can be exciting to watch someone like Wesley Korir overcome heat exhaustion and dehydration and finish ahead of athletes who drop off the leader-board one-by-one.

The willpower involved in a high-temperature victory like that is far more impressive than the willpower required to run a winning marathon in "perfect" weather conditions. When there are these kinds of mental and environmental factors at play, running a comparatively slower time does not at all diminish the brilliance of the victory.

Furthermore, this isn't just true of champion marathoners. Sometimes dragging yourself off the couch and into the rain for a simple three-mile easy run is a more impressive accomplishment than clocking a personal best on tempo run day. (Sometimes, not always.)

So the next time you get down on yourself for not running as fast as your personal best, or not running as far as your longest-ever run, try to remember that running is more than statistics. You may actually have beaten your personal best in terms of mental performance.