(In a couple of days, I’ll be joining three thousand other winter-weary runners at the starting line of the New Bedford Half-Marathon. I haven’t run a race longer than 10K in well over a year, so I’m not expecting great things. In fact, I’ve taken the precaution of preparing all my excuses in advance for why I’ll finish far back in the pack — and I mean the pack of tough over-fifty runners who thrash me in these long Grand Prix efforts. It’s a little ironic that I should be the one trotting out the excuses. I used to rail against old farts who showed up to races complaining about their medical issues, especially when they beat me. In fact, I was cleaning out the attic and I came across this old essay that I wrote expressing my feelings on the matter. Originally published in New England Runner magazine, July 2000)
I enjoy the company of other runners, and I think I tolerate their idiosyncrasies as well as the next guy. But one thing that really drives me crazy is when a runner makes a lot of excuses after a race. Inevitably, I hear excuses immediately after earning a hard-fought victory over an arch-rival. Has this ever happened to you?
Rival (good-naturedly): Hey, good race out there. You were really flying when you went by me at 4 miles.
Me (flattered, but humble): Gee, thanks! I was really happy with my effort.
Rival (insufferably): I would have stuck with you, but ever since my coronary bypass I haven’t been able to do a lot of speed work. But, hey, great race anyway!
I can’t tell you how annoying this is. First of all, I distinctly remember that at this time last year, when I was coming of an injury and slug-slow, this fellow was whipping my butt in races, and I didn’t make any excuses (at least not out loud). Sure I was damaged goods, and sure I thought in my heart of hearts that all I needed was a few weeks of training to be ready. But after being bested I just shut up and let him enjoy his oh-so cheap victory. Now when the racing shoe is on the other foot, it’s “oh, after my surgery… blah, blah, blah…” And it’s not like anyone put a gun to his head and said he had to run a race on Sunday. I mean, if you’re not ready to call it a race, why not just stay home? Why run and then tell everyone why you shouldn’t have been there in the first place?
And don’t think I have any sympathy just because this guy is practically in a retirement home. Having (ahem) entered a new age group not so long ago, I’m aware that we’re all nursing infirmities constantly. There’s always an injury or a weakness that inhibits training. Why dwell on the obvious? But no, show up at any race and everyone wants to tell you about their stress fractures, their operations, and their near fatal illnesses. Look, I would have no trouble being sympathetic if they stopped me on the street and wanted to discuss their recent knee replacement, but not right after I beat them by 10 lousy seconds in a 10K!
And then there are those maddening people who use excuses before the race has even begun in order to gain some psychological edge. One time, when I was warming up for a race, a certain well-known New England ultra-marathoner (who is not going to get the satisfaction of seeing his name in print) started telling me all about his medical condition. Listening to him fifteen minutes before the start of an actual race, you would have bet money that he wasn’t capable of finishing in front of Mother Teresa on one of her bad days. His pre-race handicapping went something like this:
“My leg became so damaged during last week’s 100K that I had to crawl the last 10 miles. I would have finished in the top ten anyway, but a bear attacked me a mile from the finish, attracted by my cries of pain. Luckily the doctors were able to sew my arm back on, and I hadn’t lost too much blood. Anyway, I’m just hoping to break thirty minutes today, but I really shouldn’t even be running.”
He then proceeded to blast out of the gate like Secretariat at Churchill Downs, leaving me far behind.
Obviously, I need to up my game if I’m going to remain competitive. I need to become better at excuses, and it begins with preparation. First off, I’m resolved never to enter an important race unless…
- I have recently recovered from a serious illness.
- I have recently had major surgery.
- I have a doctor’s note that under no circumstances should I even be jogging.
Being competitive with my excuses will require dedication and sacrifice on my part, but I’m willing to do whatever it takes. I’m not one to give up easily and I’ll be darned if I’m going to show up to a race fit and healthy, with nothing to say to my rivals but “good luck!”