I remember growing up as a kid in the 80's. Playing video games, especially Pac-Man. I remember the way the game changed once I mastered it, I became convinced that I needed to get to a certain level without "losing a guy" to have a chance of a good game. If I suffered any early setbacks the rest of the game was useless. If I was at home I'd just hit reset. If I had no chance of getting my name on the board there was no point in playing. (Note: I was terrible at Pac-man and I don't know why I used it as an example). (Note: I kicked ass at Crazy Climber).
I worked at an aid station at miles 37 and 60 of the Hennepin Hundred this weekend. For about 15 hours I met numerous runners trying to run fifty or one hundred miles, many for the very first time. If you have never been to an ultramarathon I highly recommend volunteering at one. You see the human spirit pushed to its brink. You see suffering on an unthinkable scale (well, it's thinkable, they paid for it, but you get what I mean). You feel like you are a part of their race. Your assistance is helping. A tiny part of their success becomes yours. In summary, it is a VERY rewarding experience.
As I gain experience in these races I observe different things. In this experience one of the key things I observed was the arbitrary emphasis we seem to put on numbers. Maybe it is imposed by others. Maybe advertisements, running magazines, movies and books have gotten in our heads. I don't know where it really comes from and why we care. But we seem to.
I remember (like it was yesterday) my first 5K, half marathon, marathon, 50K, 50 Mile and 100 Mile races. I don't know why 3.1, 13.1, 26.2, 31, 50 or 100 mattered to me. Those numbers have no independent value. It's not like running that exact number of miles means anything other than on magnets, medals and t-shirts. I don't recall anyone putting any focus on HOW i ran those distances. I don't recall working on my form or speed. My place wasn't really important. I don't remember having a finishing time in mind. I was convinced somehow that there was value to moving my body that distance. Among the memories I have of those events, my finishing times and/or goals really don't play a big part in them.
At some point I read that "if you can't break four hours in a marathon you shouldn't even bother." I then made that time my goal and chased the four hour marathon for years. I never made it. Once I started focusing on it I stopped enjoying my marathons. I stopped having fun at any event where it became clear my goal wasn't possible. I then completely fell out of love with running and marathoning. I took a long break and smoked cigarettes and got out of shape.
At some point in 2011/2012 I discovered trail and ultra running. The crowd was extremely different. I met characters. We ate real food. We talked about "time on our feet" and enjoyed spending hours and hours together on the trail sharing experiences. I met a new family. It changed the way I looked at running. People seldom asked me what my time was. We didn't talk about age group awards. No one seemed to talk about "who beat who." We might discuss who won and marvel at how fast they were, but I honestly felt like no one really put any stock in their time, place, etc. It was more about the journey and shared experience. the vibe was cool, laid back and fun.
Somewhere that vibe has been missing from some of the events I have been in lately. This weekend I talked with many people that were considering quitting. They weren't in pain. They weren't in danger of failing to finish. Instead, they were going to drop because they weren't going to meet their goal of finishing in "under 24 hours." The fact that that goal was unobtainable made them feel their experience was such a failure that they would be better off failing to finish altogether. What a bunch of bullshit. What a travesty. All those miracles happening around them. All that splendor and beauty. All those people working tirelessly to help them - and they wanted to throw it away over a number. It just seemed so arbitrary. It was such a shame.
I'm not saying goals are bad. I'm not shitting on accomplishment. I certainly think people should do their best on the given day. I also think that if you are injured (and by this I mean *really*injured, like, going to the doctor tomorrow, not the ole "knee acting up" followed by a ten mile run the next day) there's no reason to be a hero. (I should also probably say I have never come close to running a 100 mile race in less than 24 hours. So feel free to chalk this post up to that if you must). What I am saying is that we might be starting to make the amazing the enemy of the ideal.
I don't know of a single elite that reads this blog (sniffle). So I feel pretty safe in saying this. If you think you are better than someone or had a better race because you ran longer or faster than someone else, ranked higher, won an age group award or got a PR you're kidding yourself. Stick around and watch the smiles on those finishing near the end of a 100 mile race. Go see the shock of those finishing their first 5K. See the "couch to marathon" crowd at mile 26.2 of their first marathon. Tell me any of these people had a worse race than you. Just try.
The next time you're considering dropping because you aren't going to make your arbitrary time goal. Try thinking of a reason to stay in the race, rather than a reason to quit. You meet a lot of great people in the course of a race. One of them might be you.