Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 8 Nov 2002 12:05:32 -0500

A Perfect Race


To a writer, imitation isn't the sincerest form of flattery. Repetition is. A writer dreams of having his words repeated after he's gone.

George Sheehan was born and died in November, 84 and nine years ago respectively, and his writings live on. He would delight in my frequent borrowing of his words when they express my thoughts more perfectly than I could.

George was an incurable racer. If you asked how he was doing, he likely would answer only partly in jest, "About 37 minutes in the 10K."

He didn't count his races but probably ran more than 1000 of them, often two in the same weekend. He downplayed his successes so as not to separate himself from his readers, but he often set age-group records (including becoming the first runner over 50 to break five minutes in a mile) and won prizes.

George's passage that I borrow today describes racing perfection, in this case for a marathoner: "The perfect marathon is like the perfect wave, and every marathoner keeps looking for it. On that day he will run his best pace all the way, and when he comes to the 20-mile mark he will feel as if he just started and what he has gone through was just a warmup. Then he will float through those last six miles, strong and full of running."

A runner finds but a few days -- at all distances, over an entire racing career -- when health, talent, training, experience, enthusiasm and circumstances of weather, course and competition converge perfectly. I've had more than 700 racedays, and just two stand out as the most perfect of all.

One was my final day as a high school runner. I won a state mile title, setting a PR and a meet record, while outrunning a friendly foe for the first time all season. Never again after that day would I win a race of consequence.

The other perfectly wonderful race was my first marathon. Based on training times, I expected to average eight-minute pace but ran 6-1/2s. Never again would I go that fast for that long.

Different runners define "perfect" in different ways at different times. It could mean finishing first, besting a rival, beating a time, meeting a challenge, surprising yourself, or feeling no pain at full effort.

I've eased down my definition of a perfect race to this: racing wisely and well (by current ability realities), and feeling good about it (and from it) afterward. Even by these reduced standards, though, perfection is a rare find.

This fall I ran across my first perfect race in more than a year, in part because it was my ONLY race at this distance since the previous summer. I found it in a small northern Minnesota town of Walker, not in its North Country Marathon but the companion 10K.

This race wasn't perfect in final time, which was one of my slowest ever. No, the perfection here took other forms far removed from the personal recordbook.

The 10K was perfect because each mile went faster than the one before. And because the second-half pace picked up by a minute per mile over the first (which I'd used partly as a warmup after running nary a step before the gun fired).

Perfect because no one passed me. Starting at the back and then doing all the passing feels better than being the passee.

Perfect because this race averaged more than a minute per mile faster than everyday runs -- a typical result of raceday magic (which on other days can double the distance you'd run at a certain pace by yourself). And because this race lasted almost exactly as long, in minutes, as those daily runs but stretched more than a mile farther.

Defining perfection these three ways -- by how well your pace holds up or builds up, by how many people you pass, by how far you outrun your everyday self -- makes many races potentially perfect. But few turn out that way, which keeps you looking for the next one.

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