A lifelong PR seeker defends the pursuit of speed.
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
In a recent interview, Born to Run author Christopher McDougall said, “I’m really resistant to this focus we have on speed. If you do a 3:59 marathon you’re awesome, but if you do four hours, you suck. Humans are not fast, we are not speed creatures.”
When I started running back in 1983, this sentiment was unheard of, but within the ongoing second running boom, disparagement of the effort to run fast has become commonplace among the oracles of the sport (or hobby, as these folks might prefer to call it).
The most influential challengers of the speed objective in running is John “The Penguin” Bingham. I am privileged to be John’s Competitor Group colleague, and I enjoy hearing him speak at Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon expos. He always gets a few laughs by mocking the fast runners at the front of marathons who, he says, make themselves utterly miserable, drooling and grimacing in a fundamentally pointless effort to reach the finish line in the smallest possible span of time. Meanwhile, those at the back of the pack whose only objective is to reach the finish line comfortably have all the fun.
I don’t think there’s any risk that personal-record seekers like me are going to be pushed out of the sport (or hobby) of running by the likes of Christopher McDougall and John Bingham–who deserves to be sainted for singlehandedly bringing tens of thousands of men and women into the running community. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to defend the pursuit of speed in running. I believe that the effort to run as fast as one can in events can greatly enrich the running experience, and I would feel pretty good about converting a few current finish line seekers into future PR chasers.
As I see it, the great benefit of a performance focus in running is the sense of pride in achievement that it engenders. True, racers and cruisers alike partake of this benefit, but racers get a double portion. While runners who just cruise through marathons at the back of the pack may suffer less than those who fight for every second, let’s be real: running is hard at any pace and that’s half the reason we do it. Trying to impose hedonistic values—the idea that the runner who has the most fun is the true race winner—is like trying to cram a square peg into a round hole. If all you care about is pleasure, I can suggest a few dozen better things to do than run a marathon.
Human psychology is designed in such a way that we derive a great and lasting sense of pride and self-respect from completing difficult and meaningful tasks. That’s what makes crossing a marathon finish line for the first time such a magical experience for so many runners. It is satisfying in direct proportion to how difficult it was to get there. One of the major reasons marathon running has become so popular is that it is so damn hard to finish a marathon. Running is not really supposed to be fun in the moment; it’s supposed to strengthen your self-image when you’re not running by allowing you to know yourself—not fancy yourself, but know yourself—as something of a dragon slayer.
An easy life is an unfulfilling life. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” Modern society, with its heated seats and its online shopping and its pill for every discomfort, has become so suffocatingly easy that we need to go out of our way for opportunities to strive and struggle and thereby cultivate self-respect. Running goals fit the bill beautifully. Frankl nailed it in saying, “Sports allow men to build up situations of emergency. What he then demands of himself is unnecessary achievement—and unnecessary sacrifice. He artificially creates the tension that he has been spared by affluent society.”
So most runners, whether they aim for finish lines or personal-best finish times, are really after the same thing. But merely reaching the finish line only scratches the itch as long as it remains challenging. When you get to the point where completing the race is no big deal, you almost have to become a PR-seeker to continue earning that wonderful feeling of satisfaction you can only get from walking through the finish chute thinking, I ran absolutely as hard as I could. I faced the pain and the doubt and I did not back down one inch.
I don’t care how you try to rationalize mailing in your races. The runner who is able to think this thought simply gets more out of his or her racing experience than the runner who cannot.
If you ask the average person on the street what is the most fulfilling thing he or she has done, and then ask the same person what is the hardest thing he or she has ever done, you’re likely to hear the same answer twice. It’s the same way with running. Your hardest race is the one that you will remember most fondly. Pursuing the goal of completing the race as fast as you can, versus merely completing it, is how you set yourself up to make your races as hard and therefore as fulfilling as they can be.
What’s great is that this psychic benefit of pursuing speed is available to everyone. You don’t actually have to be fast to earn it. Ultimately, even those who are capable of winning races are competing against themselves, and find greater satisfaction in a hard-earned second-place finish than an easy victory. I believe that some runners who disparage the effort to run fast do so because they are jealous of the speed of faster runners. That’s a terrible mistake. Forget about the genetic freaks. Focus on beating your best past self and you will get just as much out of the race as the man and woman who break the tape far ahead of you.
There are many other benefits of running besides the fulfillment that comes from transcending personal limits. There are the health benefits, the social benefits, the enjoyment of nature benefits, and so forth. But I believe the pursuit of speed was the original point of running, and remains the fundamental (if not always acknowledged) point of every race.
The above-mentioned Christopher McDougall, aside from being “resistant to this focus on speed,” is also fond of talking about how running played a critical role in the shaping of the human species. He likes the evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman’s theory that humans ran long distances on the African plains a million years ago, hunting prehistoric antelope or whatever. To the degree that our ancestors depended on success in this endeavor for survival, it drove the process of natural selection that gradually transformed them from tree-climbing specialists into the distance-running specialists we are today.
Survival of the fittest, right? The fittest. Do you see where I’m going with this? It was the best, the fastest runners among our ancestors who actually caught the antelope and got the most meat and scored the most desirable mates and produced the most offspring with the most favorable genes for running performance, and that is how our ancestors became better runners. Every hunt was a race, and it’s only a slight exaggeration to say the winner lived and the losers died. (And by the way, it is utterly specious of McDougall to contend that human beings are not speed creatures but endurance creatures, as if a creature can’t be a mix of both, which is exactly what our kind is. Any camel can walk a marathon. No cheetah can run a 2:03:59 marathon.)
At some point in this process, I’m sure, children started to playfully emulate the hunting behaviors of their fathers. There were no antelope at stake in these games. Perhaps the kids chose a certain landmark in the distance as a substitute. The first finish lines. And the race as we know it was born. Obviously, these races were not run for health benefits or for the sake of communing with nature. They were strictly competitive. And while it was play, the play was life-and-death serious.
Today, we take it for granted that participating in mass-participation running events makes sense and is not absurd. But this is a very new idea. Running races have been a part of human culture for a hundred thousand years and more, but from a hundred thousand years ago until the last century, running races were always very small. For example, in 17th-Century England, running was a popular betting sport, and most races were one-on-one matchups between the two fastest guys around. Why two and not two thousand? Because there was no timing. Think about it. What sense would it have made for anyone to run a race he had absolutely no chance of winning if the only standard of measurement in the race was win-lose? Seventeenth-century Englishmen saw no point at all and so races were mano-a-mano affairs.
It was the development of modern timing technology and nothing else that paved the way for today’s mass-participation running events. The time clock created a point to racing for everyone. No matter how far behind the winner you are, you can still compete, if only against your best past self. Yes, today we see lots of other reasons to participate in big road races, but these events would not exist—and you would not run them—if not for the clock.
Time is of the essence, as it were, of the formal running event. I’m not saying you have to care about your race times and make a dedicated effort to improve them. I’m just saying don’t listen to those guys who say you shouldn’t care.
Check out Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.
FILED UNDER: Features TAGS: Barefoot Running / Born To Run / Christopher McDougall / Daniel Lieberman / evolutionary biology / John Bingham / Marathons / Matt Fitzgerald / pursuit of speed / Rock n Roll marathon / The Penguin