Tag Archives: competition

It’s Sad, and So Damn Pointless

Running is usually such a positive and uplifting sport that the occasional sad story gets, I think, an unusual amount of attention. Not just in the running community, but even in the national news.

In the “sad” category I include runners who die during an event, or leave us too early due to disease (R.I.P., Gabriele Grunewald), and also those who are disqualified or banned due to cheating. I include cheating because while it’s a human failing as opposed to a physical one, it’s just as pointless in the end.

The most recent example is Dr. Frank Meza, who was disqualified from this year’s Los Angeles Marathon after evidence surfaced that he’d cut the course. The story is doubly tragic because shortly after his disqualification, he was found dead in the Los Angeles River. The cause is not official as I write this, but it may have been a suicide.

This story baffles me. Dr. Meza was 70 years old, a lifelong runner, former high school track coach, and mentor of Latino students. People who knew him speak of the positive effects he’d had on them and the community. In his sixties he began to run marathons in under three hours – a mark of prestige at any age – and at the 2019 LA Marathon he finished in 2 hours 53 minutes, a record time for his age group. By all accounts, a real “feel good” story, right?

Except he may have faked it. And not just at this marathon. His 2015 finishing time was also under investigation, and the California International Marathon disqualified him twice, then banned him. He denied all allegations of cheating, and agreed to run a future marathon with an official monitor. But his death ends any chance to clear his name.

I don’t know if Dr. Meza cheated, or if he did, at how many races. But the preponderance of evidence suggests he was not as fast as his finishing times indicated. If so, I have a simple question that we may never know the answer to:

Why?

Cheating is as old as competition. I get that. The prestige that comes from winning can tempt people to reach for it any way they can. But Dr. Meza wasn’t attempting to win the marathon, qualify for the Olympics, or get sponsored. We’re talking about an age group award, which comes with nothing other than a hearty handshake and maybe a paperweight or similar tchotchke. Even setting an apparent record age group time wouldn’t have meant lasting fame or fortune.

Some of my more notable age group awards. (Yes, that is a roll of toilet paper on the right.)

Was it worth exposing himself to the scrutiny that would inevitably follow a record time? Was a fleeting mention buried somewhere in the LA Times worth risking his lifetime reputation of community service and inspiration to others? Was his ego that fragile that he couldn’t accept being anything but a champion?

For an amateur runner like Dr. Meza, or me, I find cheating to be especially pointless. For the real competition is not against others, but ourselves. Even with the support of crew, coaches, or other runners, in the end your performance is based on your own training, ability, and desire. It’s wanting to know how good we can be, or to break through what we thought our limits were, that keeps us going.

Sure, cheating hurts others if you take away an award or recognition that rightfully belongs to someone else. But mainly you cheat yourself. Even professionals do. Does Lance Armstrong ever wonder how good he could have been if he’d raced clean? I bet he does. But no one, including him, will ever know. And that’s a shame.

Perhaps Dr. Meza’s wife, even if inadvertently, summed it up best. “Running was very important to my husband,” she said, “and now unfortunately he won’t run marathons anymore.”

And that’s sad.

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Trail Marathon: Chasing Ghosts

April 30 was a cold, gray day on the Potawatomi Trail – and the ghosts were out.

Trail Marathon is the original and oldest race put on by RF Events, celebrating its 32nd running on April 29-30. “It’s so old,” says RF Events owner Randy Step, “that it doesn’t even have a fancy name. It’s just ‘Trail Marathon.’”

I ran the 5-mile race here for several years, gasping all the way and marveling at the signs that said, “MARATHON MILE 13” and such. How was it possible to run even a half marathon on these crazy trails? And a full marathon or 50K? Inconceivable! That is, until a pivotal conversation led me to find out in 2014 that it wasn’t only possible, it was fun. I’ve run the marathon or 50K there ever since.

2014, after finishing the 50K. No wimps, baby!

But it wasn’t until last year that I found out about the Rogucki trophy. Named after the late local running legend John “Road Kill” Rogucki, the top marathon finishers each year (male and female) age 50 and older get their names and times on the trophy.

Isn’t that worth running a marathon for? I thought you’d agree!

Well, there was something cool to shoot for! But in 2016, I was preoccupied with getting our Zero Waste program off to a good start. So I ran a solid 4:20 but didn’t focus on trying to win. I was happy with my time, until I discovered I’d finished second in the Rogucki by just five minutes.

Well, that settled my plans for 2017 – I would run the marathon again. And this time I’d mean it.

With last winter’s hard training, I figured I’d be in peak shape for Trail Marathon. It was just two weeks after Boston, but I lined up Sunday morning feeling confident I could give the race my best effort.

My plan was to run the first loop in under two hours, then hold steady in the second, with an overall finish around 4:10. Nowhere near the 50+ record time, (Randy said Rogucki had run it in three hours) but a winning time in many past years.

I started with the front runners to establish a position early. The leaders soon disappeared, but I settled in at the pace I wanted. Despite the cold weather, I heated up fast; at the first aid station I peeled all my top layers off. I’ve never run a race shirtless before, let alone in 45 degrees, but here you go:

Near the end of the first loop I was still among the top marathoners and hadn’t seen anyone else near my age. I powered up the hills between miles 11-12 feeling good. If I could sustain the pace, I liked my chances. I tried to imagine Rogucki’s spirit running with me. Or was I too slow even for his ghost?

Then someone in gray hair and a gray-white beard passed me. Not a sudden burst of speed pass; his pace was steady and strong. Past me, up the hill, and down the trail, the distance between us steadily widening.

Oh, sh**.

Well, what to do? Step it up and try to stick with him, or stay on plan and let him go? With over half the race left, a faster pace risked burning out. But it looked like my shot at a Rogucki win was rapidly fading into the distance with the back of this guy’s shirt.

I made the decision; I would run my race, not his. And who knew? Perhaps he’d get tired near the end, or tweak an ankle (which I do NOT wish on anyone, but it happens). And if he won, well, more power to him. There was always next year.

I finished the first half in 1:58, right on plan. Then things went downhill (not the good kind). I struggled up the inclines, and my legs were sluggish. Maybe it was too much to expect, so soon after Boston? My spirits picked up when I spied my opponent up ahead, only to fall hard when I realized it wasn’t him and likely wouldn’t ever catch him.

But that turned out to be the low point. I relaxed and focused on keeping my cadence up despite fatigue. I caught a second wind and fell into a rhythm that carried me through the remaining miles. At Boston, the final four miles were agony; here, they weren’t easy, but I was able to enjoy them. The rain held off, I was on my favorite trails, and running strong. Couldn’t ask for more!

Why yes, I AM having fun. Can’t you tell? (From 2013)

I crossed the finish line eighth overall in 4:08, beating my goal time and improving last year’s time by 12 minutes. Success by all measures – except one. And as I walked through the finish chute, there was my worthy opponent, stretching by a picnic table. He’d finished seventh overall, just ahead of me.

By five minutes.

I walked up to him and congratulated him on his great race. “Thanks,” he said. “This was my first marathon.” Yep – his first ever, and on these trails! We figured that on the road, his performance would translate to about a 3:15 finish. He looked puzzled when I mentioned the Rogucki, so I took a mental deep breath and asked how old he was.

“I’m 40,” he said. So he wasn’t even eligible for the trophy for another ten years! The gray hair had fooled me completely. I went over to the display of results, and there it was:

It was funny, but I felt relief more than pleasure. Not from winning, but that I’d stayed disciplined and stuck with my plan. If I’d tried to chase him down, I might have cost myself an excellent result – and the win – for a nonexistent competitor. For a phantom.

And if he’d been over 50 after all? Well then, so what? So much of winning a race is outside one’s control – the weather, the trail conditions, and above all, who shows up and who doesn’t. What really matters is that I ran the strongest, smartest race I could that day. That’s at least as gratifying as my name on the trophy. Not that I’ll refuse it.

My “Double Nickel” Promotion

I GOT A PROMOTION TODAY.

Not for anything I did, or didn’t do. No, this was entirely due to three lucky accidents: that I was born, that my parents didn’t kill me when I was a teenager, and that I have lived this long.

You see, I turned 55 today.

And it’s been a good day! I got in 14 miles with my favorite run club, birthday wishes from family and friends, and free ice cream at Coffee House Creamery to go with my Sweetwaters OMG Chocolate Cake. And kisses and a funny/sappy card from my wife. Can’t ask for much more.

Coffee tastes really good after a cold morning run!

Coffee tastes really good after a cold morning run!

But for a competitive runner, turning 55 means one more thing – advancement to a new age group.

What does that mean? Not much, really. While some “senior discounts” kick in at this age, they don’t include race entry fees or running gear prices. There are a couple of minor benefits, such as ten extra minutes on a Boston Marathon qualifying time, and, based on my observation of race results, an improved chance to win age group awards. (Not that I need more pint glasses or spray-painted shoes.)

Final race in the 50-54 age group. Went out with a bang!

Final race in the 50-54 age group. Went out with a bang!

The group I’m leaving (50-54) is a strong one. There were times over the past five years I’ve beaten every runner aged 40-49 and still not been the top Masters finisher. Heck, a 52-year-old won the Bigfoot Snowshoe 5K a few years ago. And there are some age 55+ runners much faster than I am; they inspire me to try to keep improving.

I know some people get bummed out about reaching a “milestone year” such as 30, 40, 50, or whatever. Not here. My “year of being 50” was a celebration of events such as a 600-mile bike trip and first 50K ultra, and “my year of 55” will be celebrated in the same spirit.

First 50K at 50. How to top that at 55? We shall see!

First 50K at 50. How to top that at 55? We shall see!

Like how? In addition to my first Boston Marathon, I’ve got some off-the-wall things on the calendar:

  • An ultra in the snow (likely) in January;
  • A 100-mile race that takes place entirely in New York City;
  • A 50K in the Nevada desert in August (at the Burning Man festival)
  • A special bike event in Portland this summer (details later)

As well as more Aikido, bike rides, and strength workouts at Body Specs. Skip just sent me an email promising a “special birthday workout”. I can hardly wait for Monday. Yeah.

And there will be more of the “Zero Waste” sustainable events work I’ve done this year with RF Events. We achieved some amazing results this year! In fact, I’m about to launch a new website dedicated to that topic. I’ll let you know when it goes live.

And, of course, this blog will continue. I hope to keep it going as long as I have stories to tell, And I also hope you’ll continue to read enjoy them! Hearing from readers is always heartwarming. You rock!

Oh, No! Our Children are too Slow!

A few days ago I was on the MarketWatch website, a site dedicated mainly to stocks and other financial matters. So as I was checking my progress toward overtaking Warren Buffet (*), I was surprised to find this headline on the main page:

Boomers to Gen X and Y: Run Faster

Go, Tegan! We're counting on you in 2032!

Go, Tegan! We’re counting on you in 2032!

The article pointed out that while the number of marathon finishers has essentially tripled from 143,000 in 1980 to 518,000 in 2011, the median finishing time has decreased by over 44 minutes (men’s from 3:32 to 4:17, women from 4:03 to 4:42). And it’s primarily the younger runners (44 and under) who post the slower times.

To me, this makes perfect sense. More people running means fewer elite runners by proportion. But some people in the running community are worried about this trend. Other troubling signs to them include no U.S. medal in the Olympic marathon since 2004, and the growing popularity of untimed events like Tough Mudder and Color Runs. Here are a few takes on the subject:

Ryan Lamppa, a 54-year-old competitive runner: “Many new runners come from a mind-set where everyone gets a medal and it’s good enough just to finish.”
From the Wall Street Journal online article: The Slowest Generation

This is emblematic of the state of America’s competitiveness, and should be of concern to us all,” Toni Reavis, veteran running commentator, in Dumbing Down, Slowing Down

Blame fluoridation!

Root cause: Fluoridation!

And here’s this gem from Robert Johnson, a founder of LetsRun.com (also from the WSJ article):
“If you’re going to get just as much praise for doing a four-hour marathon as a three-hour, why bother killing yourself training? It’s hard to do well in a marathon if your idea of a long session is watching season four of ‘The Wire.'”

Oh, brother. Pass me a crying towel and a barf bucket. Fast. I might not make it to the end of this post. I’ll do my best by containing myself to just a few points.

First of all, there’s a difference between an award for participation and one for accomplishing something. At a marathon, you get a T-shirt for showing up (participation). Finish by the cutoff time (the accomplishment) and you get a medal, and rightly so. By completing a marathon, you are performing a feat of physical and mental endurance that 99% of Americans will never achieve, or even try for. That’s worth a medal. And winners get special treatment – cash, trophies, shoes, or other prizes and the honor of standing on the stage, so it’s hardly “akin to communism” as another Chicken Little recently commented.

As for American competitiveness? We haven’t won an Olympic medal in the marathon since 2004? Well, in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, the U.S. led the world in gold medals and total medal count, including many in track and field. But no marathon medal. Gosh, that was a wasted eight years!

Some 2012 Olympic track even results. I don't know about you, but I'm seeing a lot of red, white, and blue here.

Some 2012 Olympic track event results. Seems to me that the red, white, and blue is pretty well represented.

Finally, and what to me is most important, obsessing on “competition” and who is training hard and who isn’t, is a colossal waste of time and energy. Only a few runners in any marathon, or any race, have a chance to win. They know who they are, and they can take care of themselves. Why should it matter to Toni Reavis, Robert Johnson, or anyone, how hard other runners have trained, or where they finish, or even why they show up?

I’m reminded of a thread I read years ago on an Aikido discussion board. Someone was concerned that one of his classmates passed a rank advancement test, even though, to this student, he didn’t seem to perform the techniques well enough. The best response was a single-line classic:

“Why are you worried about anyone else’s performance? Just train.”

So to all of you fearmongers out there: Our young runners will be fine. Just run!

More: See marathon statistics from 1980 to 2012 at this linkYou can read an ongoing discussion on this subject, including my comments, on boards.ie.

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(*) Let’s just say if investing was like running, Buffet is Usain Bolt, and I am…well, me.