I’ve never competed in the Olympic Games. I’ve never even been to the Olympic Games. I’ve never competed in any event that had national or international significance. I probably am, as my Team in Training colleagues say, the most famous runner who has never won a race.
I have led a few races. Once I was leading until about 100 yards from the finish line when I had to pull off. That’s because I was driving the lead vehicle.
That’s not to say that I haven’t experienced the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat. I have. It’s just that they’ve been moments of quiet joy and solitary anguish. In that respect even those of us whose only hope is to finish in the front of the back-of-the-pack are no different from the elites. We know that racing is what separates those who dream from those who dare.
When you look at some of the true greats, like Meb Keflezighi, they seem to have an ability to be at their best when they need to be at their best. That’s how someone like Meb wins the Olympic Trials and New York City Marathon, wins a Silver Medal in the 2004 Olympic Marathon, and comes in 4th in the 2012 Olympic Marathon in spite of a foot bloodied by infection.
I don’t have that ability, not that I’ve ever needed it. To be fair, I did have that ability as a musician. I knew when playing well counted. I knew when there was money on the line. I knew because I had to know.
I don’t know when I’m going to race well. Even after nearly 20 years of pinning on a race number, even after thousands of miles of training and racing, I still don’t know. Even when I think I know, even when I’ve prepared and planned and visualized, I’m wrong as often as I’m right.
Once, at a local 5K with less than 100 participants, I took off and just ran to feel a part of the community. I had no expectation. I hadn’t trained differently. I hadn’t done more speed work or form drills or tempo runs. When I hit the first mile marker in less than 8 minutes thought, perhaps, my body had been taken over by aliens.
I was having a great race. I knew I was having a great race, and I still found it hard to b believe.
Once, at mile 10 of a marathon when I was on Personal Record pace, I took a step and my left knee felt like someone had stabbed me. For that race I had done everything right. I had trained exactly as I had been coached. I did every workout with diligence. I didn’t miss one mile of training and yet, in that one step, it all fell apart.
Some would say that I’m not much of a racer. I disagree. I love to race. I love the anticipation, the anxiety, the fantasy about what could happen if everything went right. I love the unknown part of racing. For me, and I think for many runners back where I start, the real fun is in the not knowing.
For me any day can be the Olympics. Any race can turn in to a bloody battle to the death. I’m embarrassed to write that I once put up a vicious challenge to a runner wearing a shirt announcing that they were a double organ transplant survivor. Well, what could I do? They were in my age group.
These days I work at a lot more races than I can run. I found, though, that my enthusiasm for racing hasn’t been diminished in any way. I am racing – living- vicariously through the 10’s of thousands of folks that I see crossing their finish lines.
In them I see what I so often saw in myself. I see their joy. I see their agony. I see their surprise. I see their disappointment. And I want to tell every one of them how proud I am of them.
They dared to ask how good they could be on that day. And there’s only one way to find the answer.
Waddle on, friends.
John, You have always impressed me and let me know it was OK to be slow. Thank you for your guidance. Also, thank you for signing your book No need for speed in 2003! I am still waddleing on!