The Pursuit of Excellence
Running is the purest of all athletic activities. What mathematics is to science, running is to sport. Although there may be other competitors in a marathon, the runner is essentially competing against time. If he were the only runner in the marathon, he would still only be running against the clock. Theoretically, in the NYC marathon he is still running against the clock while surrounded by thousands of other runners. He/she has nothing but the shoes on his/her feet. Even in golf where the golfer competes against the course, there are clubs and balls, which can alter the quality of the performance. In Olympic wrestling, the athlete has no instruments for his use, but now must compete against another human being. Without the outside agents of equipment or teammates, runners pursue goals with a highest degree of purity.
Most runners start out with a goal of improving health and reach “homeostasis” or balance between all the organ systems so that the runner feels at ease, comfortable and symptom free, not dehydrated, tired, or in pain. Soon, simple improvement in health may lead the runner to the pursuit of excellence. Excellence in prize fighting where the goal is to render the opponent unconscious is measured by knockouts and decisions versus losses. In American football and baseball excellence is measured by the number of points a team accumulates versus an opponent scores. The number of times a team scores more than an opponent teams versus how many times the opponent team scores more than any other team results in a won loss record which measures excellence.
For runners, after health is achieved excellence is often pursued and is measured by two personal parameters; speed and endurance. Speed measures how quickly the runner can move from point “A” to point “B” and is measured in time. Time is divided into smaller and smaller increments so that progress toward excellence can be judged with more precision. Endurance measures the period of time a runner continues to traverse a certain distance from point “A” to point “B.” Runners have come first to define the distance of the endurance trial then measure the period of time, directly related to speed, required for the athlete to complete the distance sometimes suffering intense discomfort.
We all have different definitions of what constitutes our own personal health, what fast means to each of us and how long we should be able to keep up a pace without suffering exhaustion. In my years of practice I have found that the expectations of these variables is what gets runners in trouble. The thought of me stringing together 26 sub 5 minute miles is beyond my comprehension, but the thought of running the fastest marathon I possibly can sounds reasonable. Training does not tell me how fast I can run a marathon. I will continue my intervals and speed work until I can’t. Why can’t I keep doing them? I’m in too much pain.
Runners come into the office and point to a spot on their kneecap or Achilles and say, “If I run 130 mile per week, it hurts right here. If I run 125 miles per week, it doesn’t hurt.” Is 125 miles per week the absolute maximum for this individual? I don’t know, especially when they bring in two brown paper supermarket bags, one filled with different shoes and one loaded with orthotics. Now too many confounding variables have been used to improve performance. It’s a better golf club or ball. The purity of running has been lost.
The last thing this runner wants to hear from me is,
“Why don’t you run 125 miles per week?” Like any addict, they want more. Some would say running is a ‘positive addiction,’ but in the course of pursuing it they have also lost the original goal…health… and now they present with disease.
Interestingly, no runner has ever started a run with the goal of injuring oneself just like no one uses therapeutic opiates with the objective of becoming a heroin addict, but both occur.