"Decide that you want it more than you are afraid of it" - Bill Cosby
When we meet up with runners we've just met or haven't seen in long time and find they've been running marathons or ultras, we will invariably ask them "What's your best time?". This line of thinking is supposed to let us know how good a runner this guy is. Did he qualify for Boston? Did he do 100 miles in less than less time than it takes to see two sunrises? More importantly, where does he stack up to your time? Any time slower than you is regarded as "Well, good for him. Keep up the good work.". Any time faster is met with "Whew! You're pretty good.".
The other day, I was running with my good buddy, Ken, and we got to talking about this. After all, you can check anybody's marathon time on http://www.marathonguide.com/ . Ken brought up a good point..."Don't tell me your best time. Tell me your slowest time!". If you want to find out the true mettle of a runner, you know, see what's inside, real deep inside, then that is the question to ask. The answer you will usually get is an apologetic hem-hawing about heat, terrain, sickness, etc derailing an average time. I assume most of you that read this blog have been out there on the road or trail many times during races. In all those races, the clock keeps running no matter how good or bad you can feel. Things can go amazingly good sometimes and when you reach the finish line, it's like you've finally turned that proverbial corner and hit your stride. You can't wait to tell every Tom, Dick, and Aunt Bea what your time was. This will be your benchmark from now until that someday when you hopefully better it.
But, let's not pull any punches here. We've all been in races where the whole enchilada comes apart and we're left with "What the heck is going on?". In a shorter race, you can hang on and usually you are still followed by many walkers, so the sting isn't too bad. Besides, even the worst 10k is only going to last 90 minutes or so. But, in a race that at least lasts several hours, the less experienced you are, the more inclined you are to pack it in and save it for another day. Even experienced veterans will put their tails between their legs sometimes and plan for the next race almost immediately.
But when things go seriously south in a long distance run, and there is no injury involved, the mindset of most of these seasoned athletes is to try to lock in on what has to be done to get to the finish line. If you've been through the throws of Hades during a long, tortuous run, then, most of the time, you will try to reboot, recalculate, and reset the goals. It seems like the finish line is getting further away rather than closer. The sun is getting hotter. The hills are getting steeper. I've been in many trail races where I've been alone in the woods, berating myself about what an awful runner I am, wondering who was I trying to fool by saying I knew what I was doing...oh yeah, it is a long, lonely, miserable journey. You wonder how you will ever finish the race. You have basically two choices: try to snap out of it mentally or physically (eat, drink, cool off, etc), or you can try to tune every cell in your body to focus on one, and only one goal...heading to the finish. Some call it a bonk, some call it the wall, but unless you've been through it, you just don't know what it's like...there is a quote about something like "When you stare into the abyss, the abyss will stare into you". Now, I don't want to get into a big philosophical discussion about exactly what the abyss is, but I do know when I'm deep in the woods, when my legs are completely shot to hell, there's nobody in front of me, and nobody behind me, and only the dirt trail beneath my feet, the abyss is the dark tunnel of the race. On the other side of the tunnel is the light of the finish line. Do I take the easier DNF (or as the Barkley Marathons calls it RTC - Refused To Continue) or do I try to summon some strength that I don't even know I have left?
Whether it be alone on the trail with nobody around, or alone on the road with 15,000 people in the same race...if we choose to continue...if we choose to stare into the abyss...we draw from our own deep will to finish...time be damned. It is all we can do, it's all we have. We can still put one foot in front of the other. My mantra has always been, good run or not, "Every step is a step closer". I have climbed hills when my "up" muscles were drained dry. I've been in the latter stages of a race where I think I literally have fallen asleep while still moving forward, but every step is a step closer. We have all stared into that abyss, and it changes us. We know the abyss is part of it all. It might take hours to come out the other side, but come out we will. We doubt our strength once the abyss tries to stare us down, but it can't. We've been there before. We've cried like a little girl inside, but we still trudged on. We've won before.
So, don't tell me your fastest time. That lets me know what happened when everything went just right...when the abyss overslept and never bothered you. Tell me your slowest time, when you were at the brink of the cliff, ready to throw the towel in, raise the white flag, take the short cut home...but you didn't. The finish line was there and all you had to do was cross it...yeah, that's all you had to do! You can't explain it to others, but sometimes you're slowest times are the ones you're most proud of. It was during these races that others didn't find out about you...YOU found out about you...and you have every right to be proud of yourself. You crossed the line and said to yourself "That was ALL I had today". You swear you'll never come back, but the Abyss has been slain, and like the Phoenix, rises from the dead and beckons you to return, and return you will. So, tell me your slowest time, because then I'll know the hell you went through and I'll know much more about the heart of the runner I'm talking to.
Next week, I will be writing to you from Beantown as I visit my family in Boston for the weekend. Hope to get in a good run or two with my son, Michael. It's a gift that I can run with him. Supposed to storm tomorrow here in Birmingham, but as long as it's not thundering, I plan to see you all on the roads - AL
"One child lost is too many...one child saved can change the world"
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