The Ego is Made of Data

I know a lot of people who love data, who pore over the numbers and derive either some scientific validation or some clear message about how to move forward. I guess I am neither much encouraged by the digits my own running produces or too obtuse to draw forward projecting lines from the scatter graphs of my performances.

I owe much of my love of running to the four seasons of cross-country I ran in high school. Quite how, in retrospect, I gained that affection while swimming through 90-degree heat and viscous humidity on the Alabama Gulf Coast, I can’t really say. It certainly didn’t come from winning races. It didn’t come from putting up fast times, and it didn’t come from a nurturing coach who showed me the path to endorphin-based salvation.

Avenue of the Oaks, Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL, the scene of many of my high school cross country practices.

I just always loved the rhythm of it, feet against the ground, breath ragged in my ears, but measured, floating there in that space that didn’t seem possible, but somehow was.

Now, a few steps from 50, I have to be grateful for all those 12 x 400 and 6 x 800 workouts in the smothering heat, because I learned to suffer then, and that has paid dividends my whole life, in addition to teaching me some basic things about running.

The flipside of that coin is that I remember being faster. I knew what all my best times were then, and my ego filed those away as the official record of what I was capable of, except that now I’m not capable anymore. That leads to false comparisons that make my present exploits look like power shuffles at the local mall. It’s dumb. I’m slower than I was when I was 17. I shouldn’t need data to tell me that. In fact, I don’t.

This morning I had the pleasure of coaching a friend who signed up for a fastest mile challenge (really a virtual marathon relay event). She didn’t run high school track or cross-country. Though a talented runner, she never lived under the tyranny of the stopwatch and a coach with a military background. She didn’t, she insisted, even know how to run a mile. Why would you run a mile? It’s not nearly far enough. When we run together, we run in the woods and as far as we dare.

The track is, in many ways, the anti-woods, a stripped bear, artificial distance machine that asks you to prostrate yourself to precision and speed, furthermore to do it in wide open public, where everyone can see you struggling to keep your form together and the bile down in your guts where it belongs.

It bears mentioning that I’m not a qualified coach. I’m just a guy who ran in high school. I can also do basic math, and I have some idea how fast my friend is, so…we went to the track.

We ran a slow warmup lap and let the heat of the morning equalize in our brains. We ran a medium fast 200, and then a “race pace” 200, just to get the feel for it. I didn’t tell her what time she was shooting for, I just said, “Go out fast, till you’re in the red. Then back off, keep it in the orange, and hold on as long as you can. I’ll tell you at every split whether you need to pick it up or back off.” And off she went.

I’m not going give you her time, but she beat my expectations and probably her own too. This was a thing she didn’t want to do, but she did it for a friend and did it well. I felt really happy for her, and I was thrilled to watch the minimal input I gave her work as well as it needed to. I texted her an image of my stopwatch to submit and we rolled out.

Next week, she said, is my turn.

But that’s just not going to be possible. I know the data won’t be good, and that my ego will bruise. Sure, I’m curious what my best mile is today, but I also don’t want to know. That ego I spent time building in the ’80s can only hold me back now. How can it help me get to that flow state, that rhythm we all crave? And if it won’t take me there, what is even the point?

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