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Eric Van De Graaff, M.D.

This summer marks the 25th straight year that I’ve been running on a regular basis.  Over the last quarter of a century I’ve done so many five- and 10-kilometer races that I’ve lost count.  I’ve competed in 10-milers, half-marathons, 3-k and 25-k runs and every “k” in between, and enough marathons that my knees are starting to hold a grudge.

Not that I win any of these, mind you.  I’ve always been a fairly mediocre runner—generally placing in the top third of any race but never talented enough to post a time that would turn anyone’s head.  While I haven’t obtained blistering speed from my 25 years of running, I have gained wisdom.

One thing I love about doing road races is the fact that you can never tell who the fast runners are by their outward appearance.  Sure, it’s easy to pick out the gazelles that will finish in the top five: 25-35 years old, 110-135 pounds, average height but long, sinewy legs, and not a scrap of adipose to be found.  But past that point it’s impossible to guess a runner’s performance by pre-race appearance alone.

This may be obvious to you but it’s something I had to learn by experience.  When I was a young and naïve runner I used to show up at the local small-town races and immediately glance around to size up my competition.  Back in those days I was fast enough to always come away with some award or another and a top-five finish could score me some welcome loot.  I remember one particular old guy (“old” being relative—he was probably about the age I am now) who warmed up with a slow shuffling gait and a slight limp.  His upper torso tilted to one side, as if one leg were longer than the other.  It took no more than a second to discount him as one of the few runners destined to challenge me at the finish line.

The gun went off and I sprinted out.  The race was a 10-k and I made the mistake of trying to run it at a pace better suited for a shorter course—by the time I reached mile 5 I’d begun to drag.  Just as the finish line was in sight I glanced a shuffling, limping figure out of the corner of my eye.  The old man had picked up his pace and calmly sailed by as I struggled with burned-out legs and aching lungs.  He became the first of many men and women with atrocious gaits and less-than-svelte profiles to beat me over the next two decades.

Here’s another story.  One year at a marathon in Texas I found myself briefly running with the three-hour pacing group.  Some of the bigger marathons hire elite runners to serve as pacesetters for people trying to finish in a specific time.  These seasoned athletes run the course at a steady pace while carrying a sign indicating their projected finishing time.  The organizers of the Austin Marathon had hired young track stars from the University of Texas as their pacers and the kid at the front of our little pack looked just like I described above: very lithe and very fast.

He was also very obnoxious.  To finish a marathon in three hours you need to run the 26 miles at just under a 7-minute-per-mile pace, and for a collegiate athlete accustomed to sub-five-minute miles our pace must have seemed like we were crawling.  All along the course friends of his yelled out sarcastic comments as he breezed by.  “How’s that pace?  Slow enough for you?” or “Dude: hang with us a minute.  You can catch up to them later.”  Our guide played along with the mockery, feigning boredom with our slow pace and joking that it was a chore for him to not sprint ahead to the finish line.

Of course, to us the pace wasn’t slow at all.  The miles wore on and our numbers gradually thinned as people dropped away.  At about the half-way point I had to slow down with a side ache but was able to catch up again at about mile 22.  When I finally reeled in the pace group I noticed someone was missing.  “What happened to the pacesetter?” I asked one of the runners.  “Oh,” he replied with a smirk, “he died about a mile ago and had to walk.”  I finished the race a couple minutes ahead of the 3-hour group and waited at the finish line to see if the college runner ever made it.  He didn’t.  As a track athlete his legs were accustomed to short, fast distances, and it probably never occurred to him that a bunch of old guys at a 3-hour marathon pace could leave him in the dust.

The great thing about participating in a weekend race is that even though it is ostensibly a competition you’re never really competing with the person next to you.  Unless you happen to be the gazelle leaning at the tape and taking home the trophy, you end up racing mainly against yourself.  You compete against your own previous race times; against the decaying effect of passing years; against your desire to slow down and walk the last few miles; and against all the pessimism of people who think you’re wasting your time pounding the pavement early in the mornings.  Your only real competition is the inertia of life that makes you want to sit on the couch instead of putting in another few miles on the treadmill.  And no matter if you finish the race at the front or the back of the pack you’ve scored a victory by just showing up.

Here’s my advice: set yourself the goal this year to run a race.  Every city has a dozen or so choices over the summer—get on-line and find one with a distance you can manage.  Start your training by walking around the block if you have to.  Talk to other runners and let their excitement for the sport motivate you.  On the day of the race take a moment before the starting gun to just soak up the energy of the event.  Be sure to give yourself a hearty pat on the back when you cross the finish line knowing that you accomplished what you set out to do.

And if you happen to see an old guy with a shuffling, limping gait finishing somewhere in the middle of the pack, come say hi to me.



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4 Responses to Running Races

  1. "pre" says:

    I ran my first race 15 years ago, a 5k. I was in horrible shape, although I looked like one of the gazelles you mentioned. I started training a few weeks before the race. I was embarrassed that I could not even run a block so I ran at night so no one could see me. I have been running ever since, of varrying distances. Although I can run farther and faster, I will never forget the first 5 K, it got me started on a path to better health and feeling good about myself…When I go out on a run now, and see someone who may just be starting to run I always try to give them a thumbs up to encourage them to continue, it doesn’t matter how fast or far you run, just getting started is a big accomplishment.

  2. Jena says:

    I’ve seen you run plenty of times and I would never describe your running gait as “shuffling” or “limping”. I’ve told that story about the cocky 3 hour pacer to so many people. It’s a funny one.

  3. Mark T. says:

    At a half-marathon recently I drove to the race with a new runner who has yet to get a fast time but is improving every race. We were standing in the PoP line and there was a yappy guy in front of us with his shirt off, 1-inch inseam shorts, 2% body fat, 5’8″, 135 pounds, washboard abs, etc. Linda said reverently, “He must be very fast”. I never saw him again, but when we met Linda at the finish line the first thing she said was “I passed Naked Man at mile 5″. So I am not sure if you can even pick out the elites by body type — but one thing for sure: Linda is now a runner for life.

  4. jane says:

    After I got divorced I spiraled into depression. To manage my feelings I started to walk with my sisters one of whom is fiercely competative. Our walks turned into jogs and my one sister and I began to run. Our other sister became disinterested as we began to talk of marathons. It was just the two of us and she is fiercely competative. She is my younger sister and for as long as I can remember I have always let her win…..or so I tell myself. After six years of flute lessons I began to teach her, and when my mom instantly said she would be better than me I gave her my flute. I didn’t even want to try to play anymore. My sister went on to be a master musician. She got a full ride music scholarship to Westminister College, married a lawyer, and has a completely successful life. Though running was helping my mood and my life, I couldn’t stand the thoughts of being measured against her. I couldn’t compete and I didn’t want to try. Running for me became a single solitary heaven not about races or awards. Not long after my divorce I met someone and we began to run together….our runs were something I cherished and looked forward to. He was physically fit and very athletic so I felt inferior and intimidated but we would run and he would say “You can do it! Just run to that next tree!” When I would get to the tree he would say, “Not that tree! The next tree!” And we would go on and on. It was heaven! I got a bifurcated divorce so it was legal but financial issues lingered (and still do btw). My husband and I had worked hard together and we had a lot. (If you consider about half a million dollars a lot)?? Anyway…so stress has plagued me so these runs were so great. Starting my life over with this new person seemed great. Even though my ex husband has everything and my son and I were trying to adjust to a new life on the wrong side of the tracks things seemed okay. I was training to run the Moab half with this new stud and I felt a renewed hope in life and my future. A few months before the Moab half Eric (his name happens to be Eric) asked me to come watch him finish top of Utah half marathon. He made one of his best times ever and at the end of the race he said, “Thank you for being here for me. If you will marry me I promise I will always be there for you.” He then pulled out the most beautiful big diamond ring I have ever seen! Now considering I had only known this guy about two months I was pretty shocked. STUNNED…and lots of people were watching….what could I say?? I felt insurmountable pressure so I said “Well? Okay????” Then everyone started looking happy and so then I felt a little happy…and before you know it everyone was cheering and I was engaged. CRAP. I really really loved this guy. We had so much fun but it seemed a little fast and with a little investigation I found out mr studley had lied to me about a few things. He was 17k behind on child support and had cheated on his former wife multiple times and had done horrible cruel things to her. Well my broken heart felt like it dropped with that expensive ring as I threw it at him and told him to take a hike and take care of his two kids. Running once again became an activity of mixed emotions. I knew it was good, and it made me feel good but could I continue? For a while the answer was NO. I took up skiing. I felt especially accomplished doing a double black diamond run with my former senior class president in high school. He is now an accomplished Economics professor at the London Business School. This somehow made me feel happy though I didn’t feel much of anything toward him. My love life remained dismal and actually got worse. We won’t get into all that drama but running was still something I loved and wanted to do…I just couldn’t compete. I couldn’t live up to anyone or anything. I felt like a failure trying so I continued to make running a solitary activity only for me….not for a prize or a race or anyone else but sometimes when you run you can’t help but to notice the people accomplishing and pushing themselves running too….so my sister was in my heart as I ran. It was too painful to lose to her, or win against her so I refused to compete and instead decided to cheer her on. Some of my favorite times have been at the end of her races watching her finish and win. I think one of my very favorite marathons was the Ogden Marathon two years ago. Eric was running that race. His new girlfriend Tiffany was there..but I didn’t notice them…..I was WAY too busy watching one of my best friends (Margaret Leuschner’s) time. She is in the older 55-65 category. We work together. She is also a nurse and happens to be my hero! I was so excited for her and her outstanding time that year….I was watching her run against Mike Frame another co-worker and she left him in the DUST!!!! I so want to be her when I grow up! You should have seen me cheer her ON!! It was a moment I will never forget. Eric was so slow I didn’t bother to stay to see him finish……despite his warnings to never get back with me if I didn’t have a swift change in attitude….and??? It was a glorious beautiful day. My sister who is a runner is also a glorious winner in my mind. I may never win a race, but I know the joy of watching others. Maybe next year will be my turn? Maybe?

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