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

Wed, 24 Sep 2003 08:39:16 -0400

Racing Counts


(rerun from September 1995 RW)

Writers of running sometimes fail in the simplest of writing tasks. They don't take careful notes on their own running.

George Sheehan promised himself to start a diary someday. He never did.

Facts-and-figures writing wasn't his style. George could recall everything he ever felt about a race run 20 years ago, but he couldn't tell you his exact time from his next-to-last one.

George probably ran more than 1000 races. But he couldn't have guessed within 100 of the true count, and didn't care.

Hal Higdon speaks for his fellow writer when he says, "Counting never seemed as important as doing." Hal's own record-keeping has been casual.

"Over the years when people have asked how many marathons I've run, I've answered 100," he says. This number sounded so neat that Hal used it since the early 1980s.

As a footnote to his book on the 100th running of Boston, Hal tried to recreate his own marathon history. He searched incomplete diaries and hazy memories.

"I discovered I am somewhat short of a hundred," he says. "The number is somewhere between 92 and 95." He's now pinning down the exact count, in hopes of running number 100 at Boston's centennial.

Hal has an imminent goal. Mine is so distant that it's more a vague wish than a goal.

Running 1000 lifetime races would be nice. Not many runners have documented this many.

Sy Mah surely did, as his marathons alone totaled 524. Johnny Kelley long since ran his 1000th race. But more people have run sub-four-minute miles than have raced 1000 times.

It isn't a feat requiring great talent, or even great effort in each race. What it mainly takes is time: almost 20 years of weekly races, or longer if the count adds up at a slower rate.

If my early pace had held up, I would have passed this milestone at a rather young age. I was halfway there by age 30.

But then the count slowed to a race-every-month-or-less crawl. I took another seven years to reach my 600th race--and then quit counting.

Like Hal Higdon, I talked in round numbers. For the last 10 years, my bio has listed "about 700" races.

Hal's story prodded me to update my count. To my delight, the 700th race arrived only a few months ago -- at the George Sheehan Classic. Mega-racer George would have been pleased for me, but still mystified as to why anyone would bother counting.

I agree that the number alone means little. Running races only to add to the total would be a silly exercise in mathematics.

Each race stores memories. I once thought the best racing ones would be numerical: How far, how fast, how high the finish? But they aren't.

The value of the race count is the accumulation of memorable experiences. These center on the places I wouldn't otherwise have gone and the people I wouldn't otherwise have seen.

I can cover my eyes and point to any line on the lengthy accounting of races. Few facts appear there, but lasting impressions of that day flash back to life instantly and in rich detail.

I'd love to pick up the pace of race-counting again. This would not be an attempt to speed progress toward a distant round-number goal. (At today's rate, 1000 wouldn't arrive before my 80th birthday.)

More racing would give me that much more to remember. I can think of no finer way to spend the rest of a running lifetime than by counting up races.

UPDATE. Hal Higdon probably ran his 100th marathon at Boston in 1996. Jeff Galloway is more certain of his count, and he also ran number 100 that day. Better yet, neither stopped adding to his count that day.

Almost everyone nowadays can tell you exactly how many marathons they've finished. Hardly anyone can give you a count of total races.

I can. It's 753. I keep counting, if only at the rate of a half-dozen new races a year, because each entry still enriches the memory bank.


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