As we test the limits of what we thought was possible only just a few years ago, comprehending what is “fast” is really a relative concept.
The clock read 58:18. That’s 58 minutes and 18 seconds. That’s an average pace of 4 minutes, 27 seconds per mile, for every single mile. The distance – 13.1 miles or, to the running community, a half marathon. Wow. Just wow.
That it was run by any human being is almost beyond comprehension, but then again, as we test the limits of what we thought was possible only just a few years ago, comprehending what is “fast” is really a relative concept. I mean, defining what it means to be fast changes, well, pretty fast!
This particular race was run Sunday, Oct. 28, so when I sat down to write this month’s column, it was the viewed as the world’s best half marathon time (pending the outcome of various drug and doping tests, of course). And as any “best mark” progresses, we always look at the next magic line to cross. In this case, breaking 58 minutes.
Not too long ago, one of those major shoe manufacturers put together an attempt at breaking the 2-hour barrier for the full marathon (26 miles, 385 yards). It consisted of a pancake flat course, lots and lots of runners to pace the effort, and several invited athletes to take a shot at it. Oh, and specially designed shoes for each one. In the end, the attempt fell short by a mere 25 seconds. But the limits of human comprehension of the possible were again tested. The current “in a race with other competitors” world best is 2:01:39.
If we could hop into the way-back machine and travel back to the days of Roger Bannister, John Landy and Wes Santee (1953-54), the buzz of the athletic wonks of the day swore that a sub 4-minute mile was impossible. But on May 6, 1954, Bannister (led by pace runners) finally cracked the barrier. Shortly afterwards, Landy set a new world record running under 3:59. Santee, although so close, never quite made it. As of today, there are over 500 sub 4-minute milers from the United States alone. So much for impossible.
We as runners sometimes view these unworldly accomplishments by those “faster” than us as unattainable. “Fast” and “unattainable” and “unworldly” are all relative terms. My “wow” moments in running come not from comparing myself to the Kenyan-du-jour or an American, an Australian and a Brit from 64 years ago, but rather from me last week, last month and last year. And yes, from my contemporaries with whom I train and race regularly. Because, let’s be honest, even though we can run on the same course with to top runners in the world, we’re really running a different race. So let’s get relative.
What you might think is impossible for you today may not be so unworldly next year, if you really (and honestly) put in the time to try. A healthy dose of reality, a willingness to work at it, and a large helping of patience is really all we need to get there.
Reality – if you’ve never broken 6 minutes in the mile, chances are pretty good that breaking 4 might be out of the question. Willingness – improvement is a very simple formula: effort + recovery = improvement. But “effort” has to be in there. Patience – nothing happens in a day or a week. It takes time.
So applaud to speedy among us. Know that they worked at it, perhaps for years just for the chance to take a chance. And then realize, it’s all relative. You (and I) can be just as speedy, just as magical and just as unworldly as they are, so long as your “Wow” moment comes with a healthy dose of perspective. Because, relatively speaking, we’re all pretty darn fast, even if you don’t think so.
Former standout Lock Haven University runner Andy Shearer is a member of the Middletown Athletic Club, the Greater Philadelphia Track Club and USA Track and Field.