In a race against the clock, excitement is often the loser

By the time most of you read this, Shalane Flanagan will have broken Deena Kastor’s eight-year-old marathon American record of 2:19:36.
Or she won’t have.
And that’s the problem with this, or any other, record attempt: It’s a Pass-Fail exam, all black and white, no shades of grey.
finish-lineclockSo while some may set their alarms to 2:30 a.m. on the East Coast to follow Flanagan’s attempt in Berlin online, I won’t be among them. I’ll be up early enough Sunday, on my way to time a local trail race, and I’ll check the Twitter feeds and message boards to see how she did, and if she was successful, file the time away in my memory bank of other semi-useful (or semi-useless, depending on your point of view) athletic facts and figures.
For me, there’s little attraction in watching a race against the clock, because the competition is so abstract, almost theoretical. You watch the minutes and seconds tick away on the clock, look at the distance covered, and try to do the math so see what pace is required over the remaining ground to get the mark. And once a distance runner falls off that schedule, unless they get a near-superhuman second wind, they’re extremely unlikely to get back on. Once the pace train has left the station, it’s well-nigh impossible to catch it at the next stop.
In some ways, watching a record attempt, especially over the marathon distance, is like watching a pitcher in the midst of pursuing a no-hitter or even a perfect game. You’re forced into rooting for something to not happen, whether it’s a hit or a slow mile, in order for the desired outcome to occur. And once there’s that bloop single or 10-second-per-mile slowdown, it just becomes a regular baseball game or road race.
Whether it’s baseball or road racing, I prefer a contest where the emphasis is on competition rather than simply performance. Whether it’s a home run fest with back and forth lead changes sparked by numerous rallies, or a marathon with a group of leaders trading surges and sprinting down the final yards to the finish, head-to-head battles are the essence of the sport. The rest, whether no hitters or American records, are merely statistical footnotes that tell us little about the game or race itself.
When you think of the moments in marathoning that are most memorable, they almost all fall into the competitive category. Recall Rod Dixon’s come from behind win in the rain over Geoff Smith in New York, or Desi Linden (nee Davila) counterpunching down Boylston Street with Caroline Kilel. It’s those images that are seared into our running subconscious, long after the battles with the clock, successful or not, have faded.


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