2018-12-01

"You're Only Cheating Yourselves!"

I.

Interesting news in The Washington Post today about a half-marathon race held in China:
Witness last weekend’s Shenzhen half-marathon, where 258 runners were caught taking shortcuts or otherwise breaking the rules, according to the Xinhua news agency (via Reuters). There were three “impostors” in the race and up to 18 wearing fake bibs, according to the report. They face a lifetime ban from the event.

Most of the other 237 runners were caught by traffic cameras and photographers as they cut through bushes on the 13.1-mile course. Each of them can be banned for two years from the annual race, which attracts a field of around 16,000 in China’s fourth-largest city. Some runners were caught turning around at least a half-mile before they were supposed to, according to AFP, thus potentially shortening their distance by at least a mile.
From what I could gather, the Shenzhen Half Marathon is not a major event. It’s pretty much just a fun run in China. Reuters adds this:
A sharp rise in the number of events in recent years and mass participation has also been blamed for the problem. 
China has held 1,072 marathons and road races this year, up from 22 in 2011, according to the Xinhua report, quoting figures from the Chinese Athletics Association.

II.

I started running on the high school track team in Spring of my ninth-grade year. This was a year early in my area, as ninth-graders in my area more typically ran on junior high track teams. (Ninth grade is housed in junior high schools in that area of the country.) I was one of the fastest runners in my junior high school, and certainly fast enough to run at the high school level, so every day I caught a ride to the high school and ran with the big kids. In part, this was to push myself to a higher level of performance. In part, it was also because it boosted my ego to know that I could do it.

The transition into varsity high school sports from junior high sports is not an easy one, however. When you’re a very young athlete, everyone is more or less at your level. If you happen to be one of the best, as I was, you get used to placing first by wide margins, and so it was in my experience. Until, that is, I started running high school races and discovered that even a fast ninth-grader is no match for the average high school senior. I went from the front of the pack to the rear, and I had to spend the next four years fighting my way to the front again. Not everyone has that level of persistence in the face of a great challenge – I certainly couldn’t repeat that effort when I made the transition to the NCAA. But those who can are in store for great things.

The crux of it is in the attitude adjustment: You have to still see yourself as a frontrunner, despite very definitely not being one. When training, you have to train as a frontrunner.

This struck me right away, and it really hit home for me on one particular occasion, when I was on a training run with the older kids. Every day, we’d run down a long hill. At the bottom of the hill was a large, grassy park. We’d run around the park and down the rural road a few miles until we’d gone far enough to turn around, and then we’d come back the way we came. Some of the kids running with us would always cut through the park at the bottom of the hill. They’d cut through the park on the way out, and they’d cut through the park on the way back. It was just part of how they trained.

The first time I went out on that run, I was running alongside one of the fastest boys on the team. I wanted to eventually be the fastest boy on the team, and I figured the best way to do that was to hitch my wagon to a star, so to speak. As we neared the bottom of the hill, about half of the boys in our group cut across the park as usual, but the fastest boy on the team did not, and I stuck with him. He looked over at the group cutting across the park and called out to them, joking: “You’re only cheating yourselves!” We cracked up.

His words stuck with me, though, for the rest of my life. I never ran past that park again without thinking about how cutting through it was “cheating myself.” If I cut through the park, I’d be cheating myself out of a full workout. That wouldn’t make me a faster runner. I’d never be better off having cut through the park. No one else would know, but more importantly no one else would care. Our coach wouldn’t have said anything about it. None of my teammates would have cared; half of them did it themselves. The only one who would know and care was me, and I couldn’t do it.

III.

You don’t have to try out to be on a high school track team – at least you didn’t when I was a kid. The track team was starved for athletes, they’d take anyone who came out. The trick wasn’t getting people to practice, the trick was getting them to come back day after day.

I started running seriously – seriously – at age eight. I don’t really know why it appealed to me so much, but it did. It’s something that resonated with me from the moment  I started, so I stuck with it and it turned into a lifelong commitment. It’s something I just love. Part of the appeal has always been the masochism of it, the process of putting my body in situations that are physically strenuous, physically painful, and proving that I can get through them on sheer force of will. It takes a certain kind of person to want to do something like that. Not everyone has the right stuff.

To be sure, not everyone who gave track practice a try had the right stuff. One day I showed up at track practice and my heart leapt in my chest, all the way up to my throat and stuck there for three hours. My high school crush had just shown up to track practice. This seemed like the greatest thing to happen to me, first because it meant that we might have a common interest, second because she’d be able to see me doing the one thing I was genuinely awesome at doing, and third because it meant we’d be seeing a lot more of each other… but only if she stuck with it. I thought about my good fortune all night long, couldn’t wait for the next school day to end, hurriedly put on my running clothes and ran out to the track. She wasn’t there the next day. She wasn’t there the day after. She didn’t last more than that first day, much to my disappointment. Like so many others, she was gone after the first attempt, never to return again. (Eventually, I got over it.)

There were others, though, who stuck it out but didn’t try. They had what it took to show up and hang out with other kids every day, but they didn’t have any internal desire to push. They never wanted to be good at it. They all cut through the park. When they weren’t cutting through the park, they were quitting the prescribed workout halfway through. They’d run perhaps half of the prescribed intervals and spend the rest of the time slowly jogging or walking around the outside lane of the track, chatting. When we’d go for longer runs, they’d just sort of… disappear. I never saw them finish a long run.

But they were always there the next day, ready to half-ass another workout.

IV.

To go from 22 road races to 1,072 is a 4,873% increase. China has essentially gone from having no discernible distance-running culture to having quite a robust one in a period of 7 years. Like so many aspects of Chinese growth, this is basically unfathomable to an American, including myself. No one in North America has any idea what that kind of rapid growth explosion is like. The closest thing I can think of was that two-week period a couple of years back when suddenly everyone was playing Pokemon Go. Imagine that trend hit, and then kept growing and growing and growing, every year, for seven years straight. It’s not just difficult to imagine, it’s impossible.

Running in China must have become some kind of social phenomenon. I have no evidence of just how strong a trend it is, other than the aforementioned growth rate in road races. For all I know, it might rank relatively low in terms of popular hobbies in China. But a 4,873% growth rate points to something definite, anyway.

When something like distance-running grows that fast, it’s bound to attract a lot of people with the wrong stuff. A good number of new Chinese distance-runners are surely terrible at running. Some of these awful runners just want to stop running as soon as possible. They want the social status associated with participating in distance-running, but they don’t have what it takes to actually be a distance-runner. These are the ones who will cut through the grassy park at the bottom of the hill. A second category of new Chinese runners will persist in at least showing up day after day, but they have no desire to run fast, or to run well, or to win a race. On the average day, these are the people who will show up to group runs, make sure that everyone sees them, and then sort of… disappear… over the course of the workout. On race day, these are the people who will turn around early and cut a mile off their half-marathon.

All that is to say, I don’t believe that all of the Shezhen “cheaters” are cheaters. I believe that a good, solid percentage of them are just people with the wrong stuff. They’re people who got caught up in the distance-running phenomenon without ever bothering to ask themselves “Why am I doing this? Do I love it? What is it about this sport that so many people love so very much?”

V.

Nobody else runs at age 8. To this day, I’m the only person I’ve ever known who started running at such an early age. It wasn’t popular among my peers; everyone else was into football and baseball. People made fun of me for running. People tried to punch me as I ran past them. People honked at me, swore at me, flipped me off, anything. I did it anyway. I did it because I loved it, and I still love it. It’s still the most fun I’ve ever had doing anything.

Robin Hanson has this book that posits that most of everything that humans do is social signaling. That is, most of what people do is designed to win them a higher social status. I expect that Jordan Peterson would tend to agree. This theory doesn’t resonate with me because almost nothing I do wins me any social status at all, and social status is beside the point of most everything I do. Running is a great case-in-point. In order to become the runner I am today, I had to actively disregard prevailing social trends. I had to favor my own training regimen even over the prevailing social trends within the distance-running community. I had to go out into the woods and do my own thing. I did it then, and I do it now. Most people I know don’t know I run, and when they find out, they don’t really care. Running is a truly terrible way to win social status. You’re better off wearing a jaunty hat.

I can’t imagine anyone showing up, day after day, running mile after mile, for social status. If it’s true that the majority of people do things for social status, then perhaps this theory explains why they don’t stick to running. They quickly see how much effort is involved, and how little social status, and they head home instead.

I can’t even imagine anyone putting forth the effort to cheat in a road race for social status. First of all, running a road race isn’t getting you much social status in the first place. Second of all, winning a road race doesn’t get you that much more than merely running one without winning (which is, again, almost zero additional status). People who run don’t even look like they want to elevate their social status.

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that nobody does distance-running for social status, and nobody cheats at distance-running for social status, either. People run mostly because they think they’ll give it a try. If, like me, they decide they have the right stuff, they keep running for many years after their first time. If they have the wrong stuff, though, they’ll do almost anything to make it stop. They’ll cut corners, turn around early, skip workouts, give other people their race bibs, and avoid the hard work of distance-running at all possible costs.

“I don’t run unless chased, hyulk hyulk hyulk!” is what people tell me.

True enough.