by Lawrence Xie
Although my collegiate running career ended nearly half a decade ago, I can still feel the cycles of the running seasons as they pass. It leads me to wonder: “Why do we race at all?”
On the surface, the most obvious reason for running is the fitness and health benefit. Serious training does make the physical demands of normal life seem trivial in comparison, when stairs can be bounded with ease and when one can save time by comfortably jogging without fatigue. However, at competitive levels, injuries are inescapable. Every collegiate runner I have known has been injured at one point or another through training. When an injury occurs, it is difficult to view running as a “healthy” activity and the unfortunate athlete is reminded of his impairment whenever he sees others being active. Given the prevalence of injuries, I conclude that health is not a strong enough motive to train at high intensity.
The more commonly shared reason to run and race is related to the competitive spirit. At its core, racing is an extremely primal human activity and it’s often one of the earliest ways we all played in the schoolyard. It’s difficult to describe the excitement and vigour of mid-race emotions when one is fit and healthy. The adrenaline surges are physically addictive. Personally, I immediately looked forward to subsequent racing opportunities just hours after crossing the finish line.
Running has a few distinctive qualities that separate it from other competitive sports. For one, running is highly accessible. Every able-bodied person has run at some point and it’s a movement that flows more naturally than the nuances of throwing, kicking or manipulating a stick. What could be a more clear and pure contest of speed, heart, and grit than a simple footrace? Free from the constraints of complex rules and technology, track races contain purity. It is the reason why running, along with wrestling, is one of the two oldest sports in history.
Modern timing equipment brings another dimension to running. Timing the duration of the race distills the event down to a number. Although runners may technically be racing each other, they are also racing the clock. One of the first things a runner looks for after crossing the finish line is the results sheet or some other indication of her time. This explicit measure of performance makes our sport unique. Our memories of our ball-handling skills or shooting accuracy may decrease or enhance over time, but our personal best times are locked in for life. The phrase “you are only as good as your last race” rings true as a remark on current fitness, yet it is absolutely incorrect in regard to one’s athletic respect. A 1:46 man will always be a 1:46 man in my eyes. The simple digits indicating one’s fastest race give a glimpse into hours of intense workouts filled with suffocating aerobic debt and burning lactic fire.
Unfortunately, the finality of race times can also be equally harsh. Mediocre PBs conjure up a sense of unrealized potential or opportunities never taken. For the elites, I can only imagine how key race results will forever sting as they bear the blunt evidence of missed medals and failure to qualify for teams. Mistakes and weaknesses are captured in numeric form, painfully ranked in a way not many other sports can compare.
The precise measurement of running results holds another more philosophical allure. I believe many are drawn to running because of the simplicity and clearness of objective: to become faster. Beyond high school, the world can seem more complicated and sometimes it is hard to choose the right path. This makes it more difficult to assess whether one is making “progress” in life. Runners risk becoming too obsessive and letting race results represent a sense of self-worth, which is understandable since life does not offer an easy-to-decipher measure of development. Over time, life aspirations evolve as people face new conflicts and joys through the natural changes of growing up. The goal of running remains unwavering through it all. The track stays faithful through all of life’s twists and offers the same gradual left turns over the constant familiar distance. For me, few things will ever feel as purposeful, yet without purpose, as running. And I hope to toe the start line for another racing season one day.