I’ve written about this before. Or perhaps I just talk about it so much that I think I’ve written about it before. But seeing as the Boston marathon was just a few weeks ago, that quite a few people I know ran it, and that with summer around the corner, there’s lots of talk of running and races, why the heck should I not repeat myself?
Especially on such an important topic.
The Tired Old Way
How do you measure success in endeavors such as running, cycling, cross-country skiing, swimming, or, of course, triathlon (to name just a few of those highly competitive “timed” sports)? Your answer is likely to be along the lines of “very simply: by whether one wins the race or not, duh!”
Indeed, if ever there was an area where measuring success, or performance, seems very straightforward, it is in events that are objectively measured by duration. (This post is therefore not about any of those “sports” where style, form, technique, and other subjective aspects are being scored. They might be very difficult to master, highly demanding, and quite enjoyable things to watch, but I’m not going to talk about them.)
If you’ve ever participated in a race of some sort, I bet you’ve been asked by at least one person (who was not joking about it) whether you won or not. It seems a natural thing to ask about in our society that celebrates victory and watching winners take all. But is that really the only way of evaluating the success of people taking part in such physical activities?
Allow me to have strong doubts about it, and a few minutes to try to convince you. Because, as much as it is commendable to strive hard and win races, being obsessed with winning is not healthy. You only have to observe the number of times people have cheated in order to qualify for Boston, even cheated to win it (or other races), to see that the winning obsession brings out the worst in us. (It is to the point where, either from misplaced pride or jealousy, fellow performance runners become very skeptical of anyone who claims to qualify for Boston. For instance, this recent article from the Runner’s World blog. But that is both very interesting in its own right, and a topic for another post.)
So what else might there be? Here are a few possible answers:
Why not “going past our own limits”? To train hard, sacrifice much time and money to get into better shape, and finally be able to go farther, last longer, and feel better than we did. Surely that is a form of success worth celebrating. That we must celebrate, in fact.
How about being able to cover a certain distance in less time than previously possible? Measuring, in pure objectivity, an improvement in performance, even if said performance is not of a winning races type, that is surely a form of success for an athlete. And if one starts slowly enough, and improves slowly as well, it becomes possible to have success repeatedly over a long period of time…
For amateur athletes in sports like running, there appear to be many yardsticks, entirely arbitrary, that offer good alternatives: A half marathon in under two hours, a marathon in less than 4, etc. They are pretty good objectives to have, precisely because they are entirely… objective. It can provide a better frame for friendly competition, instead of the binary “winning or losing.” As long as one remains reasonable about said objectives, keeping in mind that we are all physiologically a little different.
Especially for marathon runners, to continue in that rich vein, there is of course the long shadow of the Boston Qualifier (BQ). It is like a badge of honor for runners, and as a personal objective it can be highly motivating. But since it is not necessarily a reasonable objective for everyone, it can indeed become a dark and cold place. Many start down that road with good intentions, and reasonable personal goals like those mentioned earlier, but then, at a bad turn, find themselves in the ditch of performance stress. However, if managed carefully, and as long as the goal is not to do better than others, it can be a very good measure of success.
Which brings me to the crux of the matter; to what I think is really the best measure of success of an athlete: Becoming a better human being.
The Best, So to Speak
Consider, for instance, an acquaintance of mine who just recently completed her second Boston Marathon. She trained hard, and long, to get there the first time. She suffered a great deal to reach that goal (and probably caused a bit of suffering to her husband in the process). But as a person, running has brought her tremendous benefits. She has grown, as much in personal health as in her capacity to do good around her.
Moreover, for years now she has used that energy to good ends; by being a mentor and a coach to folks who participate in the Team in Training fundraising program of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Thus, she is also serving a much greater cause, which is to fight against blood cancers (and cancers in general).
When she qualified for Boston the first time, she did not win the marathon she had entered. I know; I was there: I was her personal pace bunny. But that performance required her to go well beyond what she was previously capable of doing, running-wise.
And in doing Boston, she also did not win. But the more she runs, the more she grows, and the more she gives around her.
Success should be measured by being the best. The best human being you can be, that is.
So forget about being fast, about winning at all cost, about “qualifying” as the only worthwhile goal. Let those who seek only those things, and generally think only about their own persons, wallow in their narrow-minded attitudes. (If they have not yet driven you away because of their frustration at not quite having BQed at their latest races.)
The only yardstick that should matter is simple: Does it make you a better person?
So move, everyday, by any means you enjoy, and pursue your own objectives. As long as it makes you better, and helps others around you more than it annoys them…
Image credits: Pixabay