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

Fri, 07 Sep 2007 16:59:04 -0400

America's Best


(rerun from September 1998 RW)

America's top runners can't win. No matter which way they turn, they run into critics.

If they run against world all-stars, they're not competitive. If they don't run in the same races, they're ducking the best competition.

If they enter only open races, they're winning no money and can't support themselves in the style required of modern athlete. If they enter Americans-only races where they can earn a payday, they're supporting exclusionary (some now say "racist") events that reward mediocrity.

If they don't win, they haven't trained hard enough. If they work harder and get hurt and can't race, they don't know how to train right.

If they run fast, they're told how many of the world's runners are faster. If they're the fastest Americans, they're told how many past U.S. runners were faster.

Critics of today's Americans are numerous and noxious. They take to the newspapers, magazines and websites to tell the runners that they unskilled, ill-trained and undermotivated. In so many words, the message the top runners hear is, "You're no good, and you'll never be any good. So why bother?"

This message stinks. It discourages honest effort and the celebrating of success in the way that lesser runners are allowed to measure it.

Running is breeding its own annoying fans, like those of the bigtime team sports, who itch to shout, "We're number one!" and attack athletes who dare disappoint them. The All-American ethic is: to win at all, you must win it all -- the World Series, Super Bowl, Olympic gold, Boston Marathon. Anything less turns the fan into a critic and the "loser" into a target.

Running defines winning better that. Winning is being there, trying to do better than you did the last time or have ever done before. Winning can mean beating other people, yes, but it mainly means exceeding your old self.

This definition of winning as personal best isn't suddenly canceled when runners jump into national- and world-class arenas. They still deserve to celebrate improvement, no matter what their rank in time and place.

Consider Keith Brantly. A critic might say he "only ran 2:12" in the [1998] Pittsburgh Marathon and only won $100,000 because the Kenyans weren't invited. Yet Brantly had to run the hardest miles solo at the end of that 2:12, which broke his PR at age 35.

Consider Libby Hickman. A critic might say that she "didn't live up to expectations" at Boston [in 1998], not even leading Americans with her 12th-place finish. But how can running 2:35 in her first serious marathon be judged a failure?

Consider Joe McVeigh. A critic might say that his leading of American men at Boston, with 17th place in 2:16, "reflects the sorry state of marathoning in this country." McVeigh had to courage to come there and compete, and to do as well as he could. Don't blame him if faster countrymen weren't there.

These runners can't do the impossible. They can't go back in time to choose different parents, be born in a different place and time, run to school instead of riding, grow up at altitude, eat corn porridge.

The top Americans can only do what all runners can: make the most of the talent given and training done. None of America's best runners would accept less, and none of their critics should expect more.

UPDATE. This piece runs again after the latest World Championships. The top U.S. male marathoner finished 21st in Osaka, the best woman, 31st.

But on the track Bernard Lagat, a naturalized American, was this country's first-ever men's 1500 winner at the Worlds. Kara Goucher was the first U.S. women's medalist in the 10,000, Matt Tegenkamp finished fourth in the 5000 and Deena Kastor sixth in the 10. Take that, critics.
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