Friday, June 06, 2008

All of my Running Partners are Stars

Tomorrow morning I will be running in a race in Central Park that will include the entire American women's Olympic marathon team, about ten other women from around the world who have run under 33 minutes for a 10k (that's a 5:30 minute per mile pace for six and 2/10ths of a mile), and about 3,000 'normal' female runners that want to challenge themselves. I'd be more nervous I think if I were of the elite women's caliber. I can't imagine running a race knowing that my salary was at stake if I didn't finish first.
Wednesday I was doing a casual five mile run around the bridle path in Central Park, and I look up and see Hilda Kibet jogging in the opposite direction. Not a household name to be sure, not in New York households, anyway, and if I weren't such a 'fast-women' stalker, I'd probably not have any idea who she was either. But I recognized her from a recent running journal photo. She was winning the Nike 1/2 marathon run on the streets of Manhattan last Summer. She looked ecstatic to be winning, and her smile was infectious. As I saw her this day, I called out her name. We exchanged greetings, and I asked if I could join her. She welcomed me, and off we trotted as if it were the most normal thing in the world. And really, it was. Two women passionate about their sport, sharing a social bond. After a few steps, I was struck with the realization that I was running with one of the fastest women in the world. Maybe she wanted to be alone. I asked her if it was really OK that I was running with her. She seemed perplexed by my concern. I added that maybe she wanted a little privacy, as I imagined annoying runners bombarding her with requests to run with her all day long. She assured me that she preferred the company. Admittedly, I was too starstruck to offer much conversation at first, but my partner seemed very willing to entertain all the questions that a mortal runner would want to know, and after a while, I started to feel like we were equals. I mentioned to her that the photos that were taken of her at the end of the Nike 1/2 marathon were really striking, and it was great to see a runner so happy during a race. She laughed and told me that she was celebrating before the race was over, high-fiving people and dancing as she was sprinting, and didn't realize that her nearest opponent (Catherine Ndereba), was very close to her, and she nearly jeopardized her win. That sobered her up and she promptly stopped smiling and beat her rival by a mere second. I was happy to hear that story, and told her my old coach Bob Glover used to yell at us for waving and smiling at him during a race. 'That's disgusting!' he'd scold us, 'you don't see the Kenyans smiling!' Thankfully, Hilda crushed that theory. Though I fully agree with this. If you're doing anything but focusing 100% on the race, you're probably not going to run your best. Or maybe not. Maybe you do need to have those relaxing, celebratory moments during a race where you are being human. I don't know. I can't see it working for me. Racing really is a matter of enduring discomfort. We discussed the tireless workouts that Toby gives, interval after interval, and just when you thought this workout must surely be over, he whips out another combination. We agreed the benefits are really more mental than physical. If during those workouts you think to yourself, 'There's no physical possibility for me to do one more mile repeat', and then he has you do another, and you prove yourself wrong.. Well, then you can imagine how that translates to the possiblities open to you for faster times during a race.
When we had arrived at the section of the park where Hilda had to return to her hotel, we said good-bye, and I was wondering where I was. Not that it mattered. It was a gift to have run with that woman. While heading up some long hill back home in the outer loop of the park, I started thinking about how there is really more about us that is similar than not. We will both be nervous and anxious and want to run our best Saturday morning. We may both even run a pr, though hers will be at least ten minutes faster than mine. I was also struck with the fact that here was this woman who had just run a 30:55 10k the previous week and not one single person recognized her during our run! But maybe that's the way it's suppossed to be. Is one person more special and worthy of recognition than another simply because she was born with better genes? Would I have been so happy to have met her and run with her if she was an ordinary 55 minute 10k runner? Yes, I would have been, because I love Kenyans and their sing-song way of talking, and their comfort level with socializing with strangers. It also wouldn't be far off to say that there is a possibility that in the deep recesses of my mind, I'm thinking that if I spend enough tme with Kenyans, learn their language, train with them, live with them, that maybe some of their inherent running speed will find its way into my legs. They say that friends and spouses start to mimic each other in appearance and behavior after a while. And if there is no truth whatsoever to this speed by association theory, I will still feel blessed to have gotten to know these wonderful people.