I guess most dads try to pass on life lessons to their kids. In the case of my dad, I don’t remember him lecturing us much, but I do remember many stories, jokes, and off-hand observations that contained a wealth of wisdom about the world. A surprising number of these I associate with sailing.
My dad loved to sail. He had learned seamanship as a boy during summer vacations spent on the coast of Maine, and he made sure that we learned it the same way. The thing is that after hours preparing the boat and getting underway, sailing gives you an awful lot of time for musing on winds, tides, history, politics, and all the other fickle powers that rule our lives.
Anyway, I have a memory of being out sailing with my dad, far out in the middle of the bay on a fairly breezy afternoon. I think I was handling the tiller, and so of course I was trying hard to keep my bearing and not let the wind push the boat off its heading. As we tacked through the choppy seas, I saw to our right a seagull riding high on the swells. I was struck by the contrast of the gull, floating unconcerned and almost disdainful in the midst of the chaos of wind and waves, and our boat, which I was struggling to keep under control. Shouting to make myself heard over the wind, I complained to my dad, “That gull makes it look easy!” He didn’t miss a beat, but replied, “Well, you have to remember he’s a professional.”
My dad was no runner, but he appreciated keenly the difference between an amateur and a professional. So I think he would have enjoyed the recent article by Kelyn Soong, a staffer for the Washington Post Sports Dept., who wrote about his experieince attempting to run part of a track workout with two professional female middle distance runners, Kate Grace and Lianne Farber. (“I thought I was a serious runner. Then I ran a track workout with professionals.“)
On the LetsRun message boards, some people complained that Soong’s credentials hardly qualified him to claim that he was a serious runner, but more people defended the article, saying that, compared to most recreational runners, Soong’s two marathons and 40 miles per week were plenty serious. And besides, the whole point of the article was to show how awesome the professional runners were, and he succeeded at doing that.
I tend to agree. Although it struck me as a little comical that Soong’s workout consisted of only 2 x 400 (first one @66, second one @74), he made the point that after those two reps, he was done, while Grace and Farber were just getting started. Indeed, I’ve always thought that when you get up close to a pro athlete, whether a baseball player or a marathon runner, what’s truly awe-inspiring is not how hard it looks, but how EASY it is for the pros to do things that we amateurs can only dream about. When we see the pros at some remove, for example, watching them on TV, there’s no obvious clue that what they’re doing is beyond our own abilities.
But that’s an illusion. When professional milers “jog” through an opening 400 of 60 seconds, or pro marathoners bide their time with five-minute miles to start a 26-mile race, it sure looks like we could run along with them. But, as Larry Rawson always cautioned, just try it, and you’ll realize that the pace that looks like such a lark to them, is as fast as your sprinting pace, or maybe faster.
The other thing I liked about Soong’s article is that it explicitly described the training, the preparation, and not just the racing. That’s the other thing that my dad would have liked, too. Professionals don’t get that way by waking up in the morning with the ability to run twenty-six consecutive five-minute miles. They commit themselves to training that is, frankly, more daunting than the race performances that it produces. We like to think of top runners as being blessed with exceptional talent, and they are. But the amount of work that it takes to transform exceptional talent into professional-level running ability is almost beyond belief. There’s a passage in “Once a Runner,” where John L. Parker describes how would-be champions find themselves thrilled that they can make it through one of Bruce Denton’s calendar days, and then realize that they’ll need to train just that way every day, for more days than they can possibly imagine, if they want to reach the top of their sport.
I admit that on first reading, I felt a bit superior to Mr. Soong. To be blunt, I thought about how much better I was, as though that gave me permission to look down on him or dismiss what he was trying to get across. And it’s true, I’ve run a lot faster than he has. And maybe I’ve been more serious, too: trained harder, run higher mileage, taken fewer days off, and competed at a higher level. But in the end, I’m an amateur like him. Even at the very peak of my competitive running career, if I had tried to join a workout with professionals, I would have had a similar experience to the one he describes.
I might have written, “I thought I was a serious runner. Then I tried to keep up with a professional runner on his afternoon easy run.” I would have run my race pace and would still have been dropped at the end. This is not a pleasant thing to experience. It’s like climbing a mountain, reaching the top, and realizing that you’ve only scaled a foothill, and the real mountains are towering in front of you.
Or, as my friends and I tell each other, no matter how good we are in the little pond of local road racing, we pretty much suck compared with the guys who are really good.
But that’s OK! I mean, it’s not OK if it leads to laziness and not working hard to improve, but it is OK if it reminds us not to look down on the efforts of those who aren’t quite as “serious” as we are. Almost all of us runners enjoy our sport as recreational athletes, without our lives and livelihoods depending on it.
Whether we run every day and do hard track workouts or just run with our buddies on the weekends, we’re the summer visitors trying to keep our tiny boats upright and moving forward through the gale, while here and there, a gull rides the waves or takes to the skies, today, tomorrow, and the next day, to make its living.