WHY IS IT SO HARD TO LET GO OF COMPETITIVE RUNNING?

01.29.2017
THIS?

THIS?

Running at Coolangatta, QLD

Or, THIS?

 

I’m going to try to write this as a general interest ‘think piece’, but have to admit that it is pretty personal. I can’t believe it is unique to me, though.

This blog, and the book it is based on are aimed at the ‘seasoned’ runner. I suppose this question could apply to any runner, but it is more likely to be one that runners like me have to consider as we get longer in the tooth and slower in the leg.

First, let’s define ‘competitive running’.

I think I’ll go straight to the top of the old guy list and talk about Mr. Amazing himself, Ed Whitlock. Just a few months ago we all watched with gaping mouths as Ed completed a marathon at the age of 85 in a time of 3:56:33 What? That isn’t all that fast. In fact, in most marathons of significance it is kind of mundane. Well, mundane if  you are between 20 and 50 maybe, but Whitlock is 85! Age grading of his time and age puts him very close to the marathon record for best ever. If you don’t think his performance is competitive then you should stop reading now, because anything I have to say isn’t going to make sense to you.

BJ (Betty Jean) McHugh at the First Half Half Marathon

BJ (Betty Jean) McHugh at the First Half Half Marathon

Never mind Ed though, right here in the Greater Vancouver area we have a lady who sets a single age record almost every time she laces up her running shoes. That’s right local fans, Betty Jean (BJ) McHugh. A bit later in 2017, that young lady is going to turn NINETY (90). That’s right, 90 years young. When asked recently, how she might celebrate, she apparently said she would run a marathon. I’m guessing it will be the Honolulu Marathon, based on it being her family ‘go to’ event and her birthday not being until early November. We’ll be watching for that event and probably another new single age record.

Roger Robinson - runner, reporter, writer

Roger Robinson – runner, reporter, writer

At a much more ‘tender’ age of seasoned athleticism we might consider the just turned masters runner. One who wrote for Running in the Zone (the book) and who contributes here from time to time, is Roger Robinson. At the age of 40 Roger set the Masters’ record for the Vancouver Marathon (then the Vancouver International Marathon and now the BMO Vancouver Marathon) and around the same time New York and Boston. His time in Vancouver? 2:18:43. His placing? Third overall. The Vancouver record stands to this day even though the race was run in 1981. I could talk about runners such as Meb, or Haile Gebrsellassie as Masters runners, but when I say ‘competitive’ I want to talk more about the regular runner, not the elites and I want to emphasize that competitive is in the mind as much as the foot.

I know a pretty goodly number of formerly elite runners, some of whom still run and many of whom still race. I also know a whole lot more runners who have had far less noteworthy careers but who have run races for a long time and with a great deal of passion for the competition. In context of the subject of this article, they are no less competitive of spirit than some of the best. They care. It matters to them.

Rod Waterlow CIM Finish - 3:54:44.

Rod Waterlow CIM Finish – 3:54:44.

A good friend, Rod Waterlow, who has been the subject of, and contributor to, writings on this blog is an age-class local winner and has been at the top of regional age group performance from time to time. Rod is going to change age groups at his next birthday later this year. He will join the M80-84 crowd and I expect will continue his winning ways.

Rod is an interesting study because he has been out of active racing for something approaching 18 months due to an injury, sadly, one that had nothing to do with running and maybe quite a bit to do with ME. It was on an acting job I talked him into trying and just a silly mis-step on our ‘set’. He badly twisted his knee and that set the whole thing off. I won’t go into the whole sordid tale as it goes on at some length with other issues coming in, beyond the original injury. The end result is that Rod has not been fit to race for almost 18 months. He has been amazingly patient and we are both hoping this time he really is getting back to competitive fitness, as he would define it.

I’ve gone on about this because I know Rod well enough to understand how important ‘competitiveness’ is to him. If the objective was just getting out for a pleasant jog on the streets or tails, he would already be done. He can do that. However, his objective is being race ready and as good as he can be. Tell me that isn’t the competitive spirit shining through! His chronological age doesn’t matter in the least!

I’m going to throw my own considerations in here because it is the only thing upon which I can speak with authority.  However, I am pretty sure I’m not alone in the general sense. Let’s start by making it clear that I have never really been much more than a competent runner. I sometimes realize that in my day I wasn’t too bad. Not good, but not too bad! Like many, I only started as I was approaching 40.

Running Down Big Cottonwood Canyon - Racing CAN be fun!

Running Down Big Cottonwood Canyon – Racing CAN be fun!

I always ran as hard as I could and from time to time would have a sparkling moment, like the infrequent ‘perfect stroke’ in golf. My times don’t actually matter. What does matter is that I always wanted to do better than before. As with all ‘new’ runners, there was a 3-4 year period when I was consistantly improving. I hit my peak at 43/44. All my actual PB times come from around that time. Then came a ruptured disk in my back and surgery. As is obvious, I did get back to running, but the upward trend came to an end. Maybe it would have anyway. Aging has a tendency to do that eventually. Careful study using age grading, suggests I did lose a step or two due to the back injury and residual nerve damage. It is hard to do direct comparisons because I stopped running races and training hard because of work more than anything. It was a good 8-10 years before I really got back into racing. Using the % Performance statistic to compare races (1989 vs 1991), I seem to have lost 2-3% post ‘back’ and that seems to hold over the long-term.

I ran on at varying intensity (as work and life dictated) for many years, but around the time I was turning 65, I went through another phase of hard training, improved times and (relatively speaking) ‘best’ performances. Using the marathon as example, I scored my second best age graded time at the Eugene Marathon. My first (Vancouver) turned out to be the best both as a raw and a graded time, but that one at 65, in Eugene, OR was second on graded time, even though I had run 11 other marathons between.

The interesting part was the sequence of four marathons where each was just a little better, both on raw and graded times. All of these were either at the Goodlife Fitness Victoria Marathon or California International Marathon. Of course, two things were happening simultaneously (when comparing graded times). I was actually getting faster (because I was training hard) and I was also getting older. Just for fun, here is the sequence of graded times and %P:

  • 3:33:47 [58.4%]   (CIM Dec ’08)
  • 3:31:51 [59.0%]    (Victoria Oct ’09)
  • 3:30:51 [59.3%]   (CIM Dec ’09)
  • 3:27:18 [60.3%]   (Eugene May ’10)

I was training very hard to make those improvements both near the beginning of my running in my early 40’s AND in this little window around being 65. It didn’t happen by accident and couldn’t have happened had I not taken a competitive attitude. THAT is the point.

Third Eugene Marathon M65-69 (2010)

Third Eugene Marathon M65-69 (2010)

Did I actually beat anyone else in all of this? Well, I was 3/16 M65-69 at Eugene. So, yes, I guess you could say I did beat a few, but it was just icing on the cake. My real motivation was a BQ, and no, I did not achieve that. But, I tried. Boy, did I try!

What? You’re wondering how that very first one graded, just for comparison? OK at age 43 in May 1988 at Vancouver, my graded time was 3:15:08 [64.1%]. Again, this is all just an example of what having a competitive spirit does. You still have to put in the work, and when you do, the reward usually comes.

EDITOR’S NOTE: For those who don’t ‘do’ age grading, there are two numbers of note: an age adjusted time and the % Performance (%P) value. There’s little benefit until about 35. If you want to compare the former you to the current you, you really should grade both times if you were over 35. For times recorded when younger than 35, you can just use raw times vs later graded times. I use the model of the World Masters Athletics. There are others now too. Some races actually provide an age-graded result, but mostly for personal interest. Men and women are graded on different models, so be sure you are using the correct calculator.

Over the many (early) years and every once in a very long while, I got me a podium finish, but as far as I can recall, until recently, never higher than THIRD. If placement is the sole criteria of success, then I’m doing way better now. At least once or twice a season I win my age group and usually manage a couple of other podium placements. Attrition has a lot to do with that, so I can’t get too excited. Still, using the logic that you can only race the guys that show up, my hand never shakes as I take my prize. I have had a few successes where there was a goodly field and my time was worthy. But, I suppose you actually have to be a ‘heavily seasoned’ runner to understand that coming first out of one still feels good because you know that YOU are still out there doing the races.

I continue to want to run the best I can, but at the rate I’ve been racing ( about 10-12/yr), my body isn’t holding up well enough to perform as I feel I should in a given race.  The mind is willing………………..etc. That said, I can probably keep on with my version of competitive running for a year or two yet, but in far fewer goal races. As I write this, I have just registered for two ‘serious’ races and intend to enter two more ‘just for fun’.

That brings us to the kind of race that requires a bit of a surrender of the urge to compete (even if only with myself) in exchange for the reward of participation and enjoyment.

Home stretch of Giant's Head Run (2015)

Home stretch of Giant’s Head Run (2015)

Now and then in a race, I guess that I’ve given up hope for the original goal and switched to experiencing what is going on around me. Not often though. Usually, I still push on as hard as I can to the finish for the best time I can manage. Other than the several races I’ve done with my grandson, I don’t think I can say I have ever started any race with anything but the intention of going as fast and hard as I can, even if what I consider ‘fast’ is anything but! That is partly why I brought up the relativity of Ed Whitlock’s recent marathon time – a good raw time for most people and spectacular for someone his age. It crushed the previous single age record by 30 minutes or so. Context is everything.

I love age grading and when it comes into the picture, at least my picture, it is often more informative as a comparison to the former ‘you’ vs anybody else. It is certainly the way I tend to use it. In fact, while I do note the adjusted time (as above), for my own purposes I put more emphasis on the % P stat. It lets me see whether or not I am actually maintaining a comparable performance level.

I firmly believe that running should be fun even if it is highly goal oriented. If you are achieving  your goals, a little (good) pain may be what is needed. If achieving those goals is what makes you happy, it may be worthwhile. That said, working too hard and consistently not achieving your goals, is probably NOT worth it and surely can’t be considered fun. At that point a new paradigm needs to kick in and priorities change. That is when we all need to pause and consider the situation. If you haven’t already, that will be when you too begin to ponder why it is so hard to let go of competitive running.

While this is clearly still an open subject with me, I don’t think it has to be black and white, all or nothing. I’ve said I want to concentrate on just a couple of serious races in the next year and see if that let’s me enjoy running and racing more, maybe even perform better. The risk is that if I just pick out a couple of races, weather or other externals could mess them up. Then what??? Well, that is always a possibility. Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances! It doesn’t matter your age or intentions or level of performance. From the perspective of achieving the goal, it doesn’t really matter if it was a world record or PB; it isn’t happening.

Evan Fagan - Runner, Triathlete, Volunteer and RITZ Contributor

Evan Fagan – Runner, Triathlete, Volunteer and RITZ Contributor

I know many older runners that ‘race’ because they like the feel of a race. It is one of the things that keeps me racing. I know I can go out and run 5K, 10K, 21K, but it isn’t the same as racing. I love the dynamic, the ‘vibe’, of the marathon. The tension in the air among runners maybe doing it for the first time, maybe trying to qualify for Boston, or trying to go just a bit faster, is intoxicating. It is a big reason I keep longing to do another marathon, yet not so much for the hard training required to do one well. Could I find myself a marathon with a long time limit and just cruise through it taking selfies, talking to people, maybe encouraging some of those first timers who are finding out what the marathon beast is really all about?  I’m not sure. I KNOW it is possible. I have friends like Evan Fagan, (way over 150 marathons) who do just that.

Marathon Maniac! Done my first and only 50K

Marathon Maniac! Done my first and only 50K

I am a Marathon Maniac, #6837 to be precise. While it seems that the Maniacs have been around for a long time, in relative terms that isn’t true. The formal group started around 2004, but languished for a number of years before people started getting ‘into’ the whole idea of doing lots of marathons vs just a few for time. I joined in 2013, even though I qualified in 2008. I had run the Maui Marathon in September, Victoria in October and CIM in very early December. Because the few Maniacs I actually knew at that time had huge numbers of races, I felt I wasn’t worthy. Those same people convinced me I had it wrong. After joining I decided I should show my respect and enthusiasm by at least moving from the bottom rung, to the second one. I am now, and may ever be, a Two Star (Silver) Marathon Maniac. The point is that many Maniacs just enjoy the heck out of the event and don’t worry where they finish or how long it takes.

It is something to consider. It would allow me (or anyone thinking as I am) to keep doing marathons. Performance pressure makes them hard and if anyone in their ‘Golden Years’ is still racing hard, the physical toll is something to be considered.

Marathons are a personal passion, but distance doesn’t matter in the sense that racing is what we must consider. In a way, I feel shorter races could be  tougher than a marathon done easy. Pushing hard in a 5K might kill you faster than taking it easy in a half or full marathon. At some point we all have to take our own decisions. I know that making sure the time limit is long enough and easing to the back of the pack is a reasonable way to continue with long races. For the shorter sharper ones, a person may need to change the type of event and go from the timed, serious races to fun runs. Put on a costume, embrace the charity aspect or do whatever it takes to participate, but not race. Do what it takes to stay involved, but take that ‘edge’ off.

Guess that is it for today’s sermon. Now, I better see if I can practice what I’ve been preaching. Don’t worry, I WILL let you know how it goes.

 

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