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The Subjectivity of Running Speed

Usain Bolt Puma Igniteby Austin Bonds

The 119th running of the prestigious Boston Marathon ended recently, and needless to say the field was full of very fast runners. A good friend of mine finished in 2:59:50, though if I put his amazing time in perspective, the winner of the men’s race, Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia, broke the tape in 2:09:17. This is fifty minutes quicker.

Two days before the marathon, thousands of runners also participated in the Boston Athletic Association (BAA) 5K race. Ben True finished the men’s race first with a jaw dropping time of 13:22; Molly Huddle finished the women’s race first with a time of 14:50. Huddle and True are both sponsored by Saucony.

As it turns out, another buddy of mine, who previously worked for Big Peach Running Company and is now employed by Saucony, also competed in the BAA 5K. He finished the 3.1 mile course in 14:51. To put his accomplishment into perspective, he finished in 15th place overall in a crowd of 8,892 runners. Wow is an understatement.

In contrast to these athletes, I recently completed a half marathon in 1:32:09 (which translates to a 7:02 mile pace). Though I’m happy with this finish time as it was a humid morning in Georgia, I believe it serves as an effective framework for pointing out how the word “fast” has great variation from runner to runner. Numerous people come into the store (Big Peach) for shoes and remark on how they are not fast or are not a runner.

Frankly, I’m asking myself more and more these days what fast truly means. I would say that my buddy who finished the BAA 5K in 14:51 is fast, along with my friend who completed the marathon below three hours; these guys might say that Ben True and Molly Huddle are wicked fast; we would all agree in unison that Usain Bolt is fast, perhaps the fastest man alive. Would Bolt nominate someone, or would he simply own that statement outright? I believe he can own it – for now at least. Is Bolt’s successor coming one day?

Fast should also be considered in the context of distance. Consider Usain Bolt again. As a sprinter in track races, he’s very hard to beat. How would he fare in a half marathon though, or a full marathon? Men like Meb Keflezighi, Lelisa Desisa, or Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot may have him beat on the 26.2 mile course.

Consider these words from John Bingham: “If you run, you are a runner. It doesn’t matter how fast or how far. It doesn’t matter if today is your first day or if you’ve been running for twenty years. There is no test to pass, no license to earn, no membership card to get. You just run.” Bingham summarizes the simple art of running so well: “You just run.

Though I’m unlikely to ever beat Ben True, Molly Huddle, or my Boston buddies, I can continue to improve my own speed. Every runner can become faster, and the way to do this comes down to one word – practice. And more practice. Think mile repeats; tempo runs; fartlek workouts; 400 repeats; 800 repeats and more. Fast begets faster. Incorporate speed work every seven to ten days to improve form, foot turnover, and that trusty finishing kick for upcoming races.

Though most runs are usually (or should be) done at an easy pace, there’s nothing like the thrill of a race. A crowded field of other runners stir up the energy level to heighten the moment the horn or starting pistol is sounded. I suppose that in this moment of the ringing sound and pistol smoke filling the air, the immortal words of legendary stock car driver Ricky Bobby capture the feeling of every runner stepping forward in anticipation: “I wanna go fast!” Go fast then.

About Austin Bonds

Austin Bonds is the creator of Run Lore, a blog for the "lesser known side of running." His musings can be found at runlore.weebly.com.

Comments

  1. Yeah, you can keep getting faster or attempt to maximize the running ability that you have, but…at some point Father Time catches up to you and you do start to slow down. It happens to us all, from the fastest sprinter to the multitude of of marathoners.

    But it is relative too, because for the most part we can can still get out the door and just run. :-). Although it might be a bit slower than during our “glory days”.

  2. I had a coach in HS that encapsulated what you have said with one simple quote, ” If you race against others you will always loose and if you race against yourself you can always win”. We are all guilty of thinking that, “I could beat that guy/girl if I had as much time to train as they did or did not have all these other commitments”.
    I actually am gonna resist your last point as running is not fair and the self-improvement narrative has an age limit and slows after the “beginner effect”(initial dramatic improvement then a plateauing of ability). At some point the reality of ageing slows you down and you have to devote more time just to maintain and even more to improve.
    None of this is to discourage running but I think the running community has migrated from a collectively intrinsically motivated bunch to a extrinsically motivated bunch(thanks social media). Also you will encounter those who simply have more talent and practice will yield much more dramatic effects for them than you.
    It is natural to be extremely self-conscious when entering a new community or group and I think alot of newer runners worry about “fastness”. The reality is that most runners are focused on themselves and their own PR or race goals (although almost all are happy to help anyone else improve).
    Anyway, I am rambling but my suggestion is strictly pace based training (Daniels, Lydiard, and pretty much everyone else advocate some form of this). In the club I am with all speed and tempo days are based directly off your recent 1m, 5k, 10k of HM paces. Our paces range from 10+min/mile to sponsored well under sub 5min/mile guys/girls and although everyone would like to be the sponsored runners we respect each member just the same. So like you were saying fastness is accessible to everyone as if they hit their marks relative to their recent performance they have gone fast. So I guess in conclusion I agree with the subjective sentiment but I would link the term fast to each runner and their current fitness and not some grand all-runners level performance that way a 25 min. 5k PR who dropped 3min. is fast as well as a 16 min. 5k pr either though neither time is competitive at the D1 collegiate level or beyond.


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