Fast and steady wins the race

It’s absurd. Superhuman, almost. On Saturday, May 6 at 5:45 am in Monza, Italy, Eliud Kipchoge ran 26.2 miles in two hours and 25 seconds.

His feat was the result of a years-long, multimillion dollar research project called Breaking2. Kipchoge joined two others in the staggering undertaking: attempting to break the two-hour marathon barrier. I discovered the documentary a few weeks ago, and it’s been fascinating me ever since. (After I got over the fact that it’s basically one giant ad for Nike, that is.) While Kipchoge narrowly missed the mark, he did come closer than any other runner has. And he did run at a breakneck pace of 4:35 per mile. And, no surprise, he’s gotten me thinking.

For most of my life, I’ve been a dabbler. I’ve played soccer and softball, played the flute and thrown pottery. I’ve gone through phases as a rock climber and calligrapher, a teacher and photographer. And I’ve delighted in it all. I’ve loved picking up (and putting down) hobbies in fits and starts, letting the wind of my fickle interest and dedication and mood carry me where it may. But it wasn’t until I started running that I took the plunge and decided: I’ve dabbled in so very many things, but now I want to become excellent at something.

Now, my pursuit pales in comparison to that of the runners of Breaking2, but I’ve experienced an unparalleled satisfaction in long-distance running, in upping my mileage and accelerating my pace and shaving minute after minute off my half marathon time. I’ve sacrificed sleep and comfort in obedience to training schedules, I’ve succeeded and failed at goals I set, I’ve rejoiced in the triumph of the finish line and lamented the race I forewent due to sickness. Unlike my changeable pastimes of old, running has brought a new dynamic: there is something at stake.

I’ve been tempted to let the pendulum swing to the opposite extreme, from detached and disinterested dabbling to obsessive preoccupation. The trap is wide open. It would be easy to be consumed by cares of mile time and stride and form. To beat myself up over runs and muscles that are slower and sorer than before. To quicken my already uncomfortable pace when I hear another runner approaching behind me, just because I hate being passed. (Not that I’d ever do that.)

But there’s a happy medium, a narrow nuance, that keeps the pendulum just where it ought to be. It’s this: the freedom to fail. In the half marathon I ran last month, my goal was 1:45. I worked hard and trained well and, well, I failed. I finished in 1:49. But I still crossed the finish line with great joy and pride, having set a new personal record, having enjoyed every mile (even the painful ones), having been buoyed by the cheers of the crowd along the way. And when I showed up at the marathon finish line early the next morning, I couldn’t resist the urge to run alongside the fatigued marathoners, calling out as many by name as I could, with a smile and an encouraging word. It was thanks to the freedom to fail that I thoroughly enjoyed my race and had enough left in the tank to cheer on fellow runners.

While running has certainly not been without its disappointments and frustrations and pain, I’m happy to say my ongoing pursuit of excellence has yielded great fruit. I’ve been caught up in the thrill of competition, the gratification of noticeable progress, the hard-earned rewards of sacrifice. And while my legs may have been too slow and my pace too unsteady to succeed in the goal I’d set for myself, there was true joy along the way, and even in the failure. Because I’ve given myself the freedom to fail, I’m propelled, with great hope, by the thought of the success to come.

So for now, Kipchoge and I, we’ll keep trying. And one day we’ll win the race.





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