Things I Learned From Running #1: Mediocrity

When I took up running three years ago I wasn’t attempting to be good at it. I would run as a hobby and just sort of do it. I guess in the back of my mind I expected to become better at it, and maybe even really good at it, just because if you do something a lot you get better at it. I was a new and naive runner, and I thought that practice makes perfect.

I had signed up for my first 5k run ever, and was browsing through the past race times form the race from previous year. The course record was around 17 minutes? Or maybe even 15 minutes. Either way, it was down there somewhere. This translates out to around a 5 or 6 minutes mile pace: yeah, down there. For you metric people, I’m sorry, I know. The imperial system is shit. This 5 or 6 minute per mile pace might not sound like much to the non-runner as there really is no reference point. And to myself years ago, this didn’t sound like much of an issue either; I didn’t really know what sort of pace I ran because I’d just go run. First place was that time, so maybe if I did a 5k in 20 minutes that’d be okay.

I was curious and set out to discover about what my pace was. I went to the bike path, which had markers every eighth-mile. Whatever time I could do in an eighth, I could just multiply it by eight and that would be my rough mile pace. I set set my timer, bounded off running, ran faster than usual but not too fast, and checked my time as I neared the first marker. 1 minute. It didn’t take much effort even with as tired as I was to realize what that meant: an 8 minute mile. A 24 minute 3 miles. A 25ish minute 5k. I was going to suck. It was a mediocre pace.

Now a 25 minute 5k isn’t bad in the big picture of it. Walking this distance would probably take 50 to 60 minutes, and a 10 minute mile pace would be 31 minutes, so 25 wasn’t bad. And maybe with hard work I could improve greatly on that pace?

That year I ran my 5k in 23:49. The next year I ran a 5k in 22:30. And this year I ran one in 22:19. I’m sure you can see where this is going: I’m getting better, but ever so slightly better each year. There are no large jumps of three or four minutes and I know I’ll never be in the mid-teens when it comes to a 5k time. Physically my body isn’t built that way. There is a limit to running and it’s determined by genetics and I’m near what is possible. You can get better up to a point, but then you need to go back in time and have new parents.

What Did I Learn From This?

I’ve ran a bunch of races of varying distances since that first 5k, and each tell me a lesson over and over again: I’m pretty mediocre. Since I like data and math, I like to analyze exactly how I do in these races. I do okay, meaning that I’m in the top 10-20% of all the runners. Accounting for just males, I’m in the top 30%. Age group puts me in the top 20% but this varies based on how small the sample sizes are in these races. Anyways, I don’t want to get bogged down in data but to show that, fairly regularly, I finish in certain parts of the field. I always look ahead, to the people that beat me, and get slightly upset. No matter what I do, I’ll never be able to keep pace with them; they’re on a whole new level than I am on. Sometimes it undermines your will to actually run and compete. Why run? You’re not an olympic athlete and never will be.

Realizing you suck is a crummy thing. I don’t think anyone should feel happy that they suck. But there is a silver lining to this. By knowing you’re not that good, you can take a little pressure off yourself to be the best. It’s okay to just be okay. With running, that can be taken to mean that you shouldn’t run to be good, but run because you actually enjoy it. By realizing you suck, you stop being so hard on yourself and can take it easy. You can enjoy the scenery or the weather when you run, and you can be at peace. It’s nice in a way. The same goes for any other hobby: art, music, writing, as well as running. Once you quit being so hard on yourself, you are free to actually enjoy you pursuits.

The nice thing about mediocrity is that you’re probably so mediocre that you’re not even notable by being the worst! This automatically makes you not suck too much; you don’t finish last and there is always someone behind you. This is nice because you don’t have to be too hard on yourself: you’re not the shittiest person ever. You can still take pride in being a decent runner and don’t have to give the sport, or hobby, up all together. Most people, just by what the definition of most actually means, are normal and average. If you consider the middle 75% the normal field, you’d only have 25% of people as the outliers: most are normal by how the word is defined. You won’t be the ultra-best at something, but this also means you’re likely to not be the worst at it either. Being mediocre means you can blend in with things and be comfy. You don’t suck, and you aren’t the best.