Why Should the Average Runner Care About Elites?

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How could a squishy mid-pack runner like me ever fit in with the elites?

So we went to Jacksonville and now you know our reasons, but perhaps you are left wondering why a back or middle of the pack runner would care about Jacksonville. About elite runners. How are these fast women connected to you? Why should you care?

To dispel any myths here: my first race had a mile pace of 15 minutes and my last race had a pace of 7:45. I’ve been the slowest woman on my team many times, and it’s pretty rare that I can hang with the fast crowd. I’m happy with my progress, but really over four years of writing for SR I’ve gone from solidly average to just a hair above average. As for Jacksonville, a week ago I was essentially in the same boat as most other mid-packers. I’ll likely never compete with these elite women or at their level, so before this weekend I didn’t think that I fit into any discussion about them.

I knew Jacksonville would be fun, and was excited to spend time with my sister there, but throughout the experience I wasn’t quite certain what our role was. Salty tried to explain her ideas to me, but it didn’t really amount to much out of context. Obviously we had taken on a job, providing media coverage of women at the biggest elite field a small scale half marathon had ever seen, but … why? Salty Running isn’t the Gawker of running, or even the New York Times, but something was nonetheless compelling me to do this exhausting work. Something bigger.

Something that affects you.

“Obviously I’m not running,” I said to four-time Olympic Trials qualifier Alvina Begay as I sat down next to her on the bus. In the back of my mind I wondered about that. Was it obvious to her? Maybe. I have a good 35 pounds on the heaviest elite woman in Jacksonville. I’m wearing size 10 jeans these days. That’s what I meant. I meant it must be obvious because I’m so big. It would be impossible for someone like me to ever run at their level. Wouldn’t it?

Teal Burrell
Teal Burrell

Or would it? An overarching theme as we spoke to these women – and the men agreed – was that possibility is infinite if we approach limitation as a setback. So I’m heavier than them. So what? If I start training like an elite, I bet my body would change to reflect that. A couple times it came up that I’m on a mission to shave off 19 minutes from my marathon PR for a BQ. “You’ll get there,” Brooke Kish said, the day before her OTQ attempt. “Keep working. It takes a couple years.”  Teal Burrell echoed the statement; she qualified at CIM in spite of her first marathon being just 3 minutes faster than my first marathon.

I took it to heart, because they know. They’ve been working at this running stuff very hard for a long time. And it’s a relatively small payoff:  sure, they are elite runners and that means getting extra respect and special treatment at some races and, in this case, even a bit of celebrity, but that’s about it. Even for Shalane and Desi and Kara, though they are likely household names to you, there still isn’t much payoff or celebrity in being a female professional athlete in an economically minor sport. And up against the top, most of the women in Jacksonville know they don’t have a shot at Team USA for the marathon. So why do they keep competing?

Zoila had passed me by and I knew. I knew it was over, but I kept my lens trained on the track. I wanted to see Ruth, who I’d had so much fun with at interviews on Saturday, and the Cleveland Elite Development women who had yet to finish, Becki and Jessica and Ellie, and even those after them. I wanted to stay and see the women like me, who give everything they have to barrel down a chute for a mid-pack PR that defies the gravity of their heavy bodies. But I turned and dashed toward the finish line to cover women who run at a level beyond my wildest dreams, at a half pace that is faster than I may ever run.

So why do I keep competing?

Ruth Perkins
Ruth Perkins

What makes us the same?

We’re all different people running at different levels, but I surmise that, when boiled down, we all have one thing in common:  we are searchers. And as a monk might seek nirvana by meditating, we run because it is when we feel closest to finding that which we seek.

Ruth Perkins might call it God. She has a rule:  if she sees a penny while running, she picks it up and touches it to her heart to remind her to trust in God, even if the circumstances are discouraging. She has crossed heavy traffic for a penny. She considers this ritual an essential reminder that it is difficult to have faith in something greater than herself.

Is that what we’re seeking? Higher power? Or is it inner power?

Zoila Gomez
Zoila Gomez

“Aus Liebe,” reads Esther Atkins’ tattoo. Out of love. I think that’s closer. Running is certainly a competition, but if you read her writeup about the race, it’s clear that Esther won in spite of coming in second. So did Keely and Karen, who were bubbling over in the back of our van on the way back to the hotel. So did Zoila Gomez, even though she missed the OTQ by 27 seconds … hell, not long ago she thought she might never run again and here she was running a 1:15:27 half. It was bittersweet, sure, but she won.

In a life touched with depression, somehow I managed to turn to running. At thirteen my sadness was much deeper than adolescent angst and I needed something to hold onto. With no prior athletic inclination, I spent the next summer running every day. The rewards were great and I healed without knowing why or how. At seventeen I found myself down again and experienced my first round of suicidal thoughts. Out the door I went, running until it didn’t hurt anymore. It was even worse between nineteen and twenty and I tried twice, thankfully unsuccessful, but running soon helped me close the wound. At twenty-three, twenty-five, twenty-seven, I knew the moment the thoughts crossed my mind that I needed to start running again to get better. And at 28 finally I saw the pattern. I knew that running was my life preserver, and that I couldn’t stop this time. I started racing. I started winning.

Running is about getting closer. Closer to your inner power:  to God perhaps, or to the science of the brain and body. Your own indomitable soul. Closer to a truth you know deep down but can’t quite put into words. It’s the truth that you have the power to exceed your own expectations, whether that means defying the gravity of your body, running your first continuous mile or getting an OTQ. This truth is what I believe in, and those who know this truth are family to me.

When you link a chain together, the links at the front will pull the links at the back.  I care about these women because they are part of my tribe, the front of my chain. I care about you because you are in my chain. We are alike, searchers all, braving rainy cold and humid heat and boring treadmill daily in our quest for the truth about the power inside us. If we stick together, when the elites get closer to the truth, I get closer too. As they exceed the expectations of the human body to run marathon paces that put my 400m time to shame, their success pulls me farther ahead, inspires me to work harder, reminds me to recover well, helps me build my body as a temple of my faith and trust in the truth.

I care about them because I want to succeed. I brought you their story to link you to our chain so you can succeed too. If we all work together and use the Power of the Pack the way the elites used it in Jacksonville, we all get closer to realizing our full potential.

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. First, you look so darn cute in that race kit! Second, I think a lot of angst about this subject is two things: 1) body image stuff (most elites are very small people) and 2) the word “elite.” The word “elite” connotes a higher status, which imparts some kind of judgment. Elites = better, subelites = not as good, nonelites = THE worst. Elite runners aren’t necessarily truer of heart, closer to truth or to God, or better than subelites or nonelites or nonrunners in any way other than running times. Many, like any obsessed runner really, are amazing, interesting, well-rounded, AWESOME people, but simply running fast is no guarantee of anything other than the person can run fast. I think you really nail this in that the converse is true; because someone is an elite runner doesn’t mean she isn’t deep or that she isn’t someone to admire or who isn’t a leader in other ways. Taking out the labels and seeing that we’re all runners and that we’re all a part of this community and that we have more in common than we are different is a step in the right direction. I love reading about elite runners who have similar backgrounds to mine – they give me hope and inspire me to keep at it. I am afraid I rambled here, but hopefully, I added something of value to this conversation!

    1. Ha! I think you did. It was definitely hard to not feel like Babe the Big Blue Ox in the middle of a herd of gazelles in Jacksonville, but luckily I had a camera to hide behind!

    2. Loved the whole post, but this part of your comment really struck me: “simply running fast is no guarantee of anything other than the person can run fast.” It’s been much more fun and inspiring to learn about the lives behind super fast and not so fast runners, so thank you for providing those stories here.

  2. Seriously, you are freaking adorable. I totally get what you’re saying about the connotation of the word “elite,” Salty. Which is why I think this article rocks– because Cinnamon is communicating humility and encouragement in the runners whose paces are considered “better.” Cinnamon unifies us through heartbreak and victory. As long as we are running, we are winning. <3

  3. I love this! As a squishy middle of the pack runner, I sometimes feel like I have nothing in common with the elites or even subelites. But at the end of the day, we are all still runners who are wonderful people and are passionate about running and all the ups and downs that come along with it. This was the first thing I read as I scrolled through my phone this morning and it was a great way to start my morning! 😀

  4. I love all of this so much. Running is a life preserver for so many people, it doesn’t matter a lick where in the pack you fall. Inspiration works both ways–those in front inspire those in the back and vise versa! Thanks for writing this (and coming to Jax!), Cinnamon!

  5. Great article. As an older AND squishy athlete, I have always understood my journey is just like an elite athlete’s, only a little slower! I completed my first triathlon last year at age 61. The reason for me at 25 years old was the same as it is now – to be the best me I can be. To meet a physical challenge and get a sense of accomplishment as measured only by my own goals, my own pace, my own hopes and my own dreams. Yes, a so called elite may have unique goals that include making Olympic teams, gaining sponsorships, etc. – but they are just goals, we all can set them and go after them.

  6. Love! I’ve always thought that there is plenty of room on the roads for all types of runners, joggers, walkers or whatever we want to call ourselves. The lines are blurry as more and more people take up running or train for an event such as a Marathon. We all sort of put labels on our current ability. I’ve had people say to me, you are a runner, I don’t run, I jog, well barely. I always come to their defense & praise them for loving their body to care for it in such a wonderful way. The gift of running is such a great thing for your mind & body which you clearly have found. I always feel so much better after a run. I’ve been asked so many times if I am a Marathoner. I used to feel offended because it is like I am less of a runner if I don’t run that distance. I am no longer offended. I find pride in explaining that there are other events out there and that if they don’t want to run a Marathon, they don’t have to do one to feel like a runner. Labels are tricky. Elite and even the word Athlete as in the recent New Balance ad. I love your perspective and that the runners who are faster than us can pull us along. I’m not an Olympian, this may never happen for me but I’d love to run faster in my age group. The point is, never say never. One day at a time. 🙂

  7. Thank you for an amazing article. Running helps me clear my mind and gives me the strength to face life, specially after tough times in my life. Once a runner always a runner.

  8. Cinnamon, I’m enthralled by your wonderful narrative! ‘We’ are all part of the running chain. From the #1 female winner of the Olympics to the lady who places last, we are connected by our love for running – the sacrifices we all make and the motivation, training, injuries, etc. every link on the chain is the same. We are all winners.

  9. This piece is lovely. Thank you so much for writing it. I’m squishy and middle of the pack as well, and it’s taken a lot of work to even get there. I love watching and listening to the elites, and hearing how hard they work, how much they love it, and how they get discouraged and tired, too. Running can give everyone who wants to do it something, at whatever level.

  10. Thank you for something worth reading. I run some. I pause some. I never know which will outdo which on a given day. I saw your story on a ultramarathon e-list. I was reminded of something that happened several years ago, This “sport” is running–no distance limits needed, implied, meant:
    This sport, possibly more than any other, continues to have an intermingling of the elites and the, uh… commoners. There are anecdotes galore. One of my favorites involves Scott Jurek.

    At the SOB 50k in the Siskiyous above Ashland, Oregon, we were putting up our tent. Jurek was putting up a tent a tree or two away. “Hello,” and a few comments were exchanged. He came over, offered his hand, introduced himself and said, “I think we have met. I’m sorry, but I don’t remember your name.” Wow! We had talked in someone’s house in Corvallis, Oregon, after the McDonald 50k, for 15-20 minutes. Where he is someone to remember meeting, I am not. I reintroduced myself — the conversation continued.

    The next day (I was running the 50k), somewhere beyond the turnaround, as I rounded a bend in the trail a voice rang out, “Lookin’ good, John! Go!” There was Jurek. He wasn’t there just for me. Many a runner told the story that night, “Did you see Scott Jurek out there? He was yelling for all of us!”

    Yes he was. Yes he did. And that has been repeated on many courses, from one coast to the other, as the sport of running ultramarathons has grown.

    Not only do the elites matter; we matter to them.

    Run gently out there.

    1. Isn’t that awesome? He’s famous for cheering everyone along! And the same can be said for the best hearts out there. One of the best gifts you can give any fellow runner is to let her know you support her in a race or even a training run, even if you feel goofy doing it. That’s something I can really work on and this story reminded me. Thanks!

  11. Very well done! In a way, I think elite athletes relate to us because running is “hard” to them. It may look easy, but 100-mile weeks and all that go with what they do is really hard to do, and really hard to maintain. When I was doing some sportswriting I covered the Chicago Marathon and met lots of elite athletes. Sometimes in the midst of the interview I’d blurt out “I’m running Sunday too…”, and they were always so kind and always had supportive words of encouragement. Deena Kastor even said, “oh, I hope I see you out there!” LOL I think they “get” us mid-packers more than some care to admit.

    1. I met Deena Kastor a few days before the New York Marathon this year, and was blown away by how supportive she was, how giving she was with all her advice and how much she really seemed to care that I did well and relate to my concerns. I think you’re right – they get how hard it is for us because they’re right there in it with us.

  12. Running is all relative! This is an awesome post! “Misery loves company” is a very true statement. The people that are a part of our amazing sport are what makes it amazing. From the fastest to the slowest we all go through hell sometimes to find the finish line, and others seem to come to us. It’s such an amazing sport when so many people can come together and all have different time goals but achieve the same feeling accomplishing them! Cinnamon you are gorgeous and totally could pull off briefs…just sayin!

  13. Am I the only one who got a little choked up reading this? So so good, Kyle! (When you aren’t hiding behind a camera, you’d do a damn good job hiding behind a pen as well!) I love the chain metaphor, and the references to winning, even when we “lose”. I’ve lost every race I’ve ever run, lost by literal miles in some cases. But somehow I walk away (or waddle, depending on how long / tough the race was) feeling like a winner. It’s not so much the comparison of how fast the elites run, or how fast my friends run, or how fast I run….as much as it is the celebration of how hard we worked and how much we all overcame to get to the finish.

  14. I will never be an elite, but that’s ok with me. I have improved on my times over the six years I have been running and that’s all I can hope for. I do love to watch the elite runners because it is exciting to watch them run and it renews my excitement for running. We might not have times in common with these women but definitely a common love for running, because if you are going to do it you have to love it!

    1. You got it, Lori, that’s it. They really are doing this for love just as much as we are. There’s no magic reward at the end of the sub-3 marathon, it’s just that same feeling of how well you did or didn’t do and what you need to do for the next one. Their races and training are exciting because we know what it feels like to pass a fellow runner, to get passed, to succeed or struggle. Keep loving it and the rewards are yours for the reaping.

  15. So many reasons here that help prove why running is the best 🙂 I think coaching a middle school team has helped me remember that every runner is a winner. I don’t care AT ALL which of my kids are the fastest. It means so much more to me when they say “I ran the whole race this time!” or “I get racing now! It’s supposed to feel bad!” It is so easy to put elite runners on a pedestal, and while I love their stories and dream about accomplishments as big as theirs, it’s nice to know that every run can be a victory, no matter how “fast” or “slow” you are. Thanks for sharing!