The Time Remains the Same
Article by: Michael SelmanReproduced with permission of the author
May 21st, 1983. It was a warm, warm day on Long Island. I had been running for a little over a year at that time, and was still enjoying a steady improvement with my running. I had already run what years later I would finally accept as a lifetime PR at the 5K distance, but my youthful enthusiasm didn't allow me any way of knowing it at that time. I had yet to run my first marathon, and PR times at all other distances still awaited me sometime in the future.
Less than a year earlier, I had run my first 10K race, Shelter Island, in a little under an hour, and I was thrilled. About a month later, I ran another one in about 48 minutes, a ten-minute improvement, and I was elated. When you're just starting out, you can do things like that. The improvement continued through the fall. I remember making a goal of sub 45 for the 10K by the end of 1982. The feat was accomplished in October, on consecutive weekends, when I first ran a 43:55, and then a 44:10 seven days later. The runner had arrived, and beaten his goal.
Through the end of 1982, and into the early part of 1983, I ran a series of 10K races, all in under 44 minutes, and some in under 43. That became my standard, and I just knew I would never run the distance in over 45 minutes again.
Never lasted until May 21st, 1983, when the heat of the day made me pay for my 6:30 first mile, and had me walking by mile five. I finished in about 46:30, and the comment I wrote in my running log was as follows: "I never thought I'd run this slow again." It was a real disappointment to take a step backwards in time, and I was hoping it was an anomaly. For the most part, it was, but I was starting to learn some of running's little lessons, like the fact that weather and terrain could have an impact on your overall time, your place in the field told a clearer story than a time on a clock, and there were days when you just didn't have it.
Still, as the years carried on, a sub 45-minute 10K and a sub 21-minute 5K became my goals to conquer each new year. And every new year through 1997, I did it. I naively thought I could continue to run times like these forever. But the sub-21 minute 5K was starting to get harder and harder to achieve in each advancing year. I went through more than half of 1997 before I finally ran a 20:56 on July 12th 1997. By the next weekend, running had come to a halt for most of the rest of the year. I was injured.
1998 was a great year in almost every way, but not for running. Sciatica followed me everywhere I went for the first three months, and then, it bit me. I stopped running again in mid-March of that year, but rest didn't seem to help the pain. I started up again in June, but every step still hurt. I loved racing, but could hardly break 25 minutes for a 5K any more. Sometimes, my finish times would balloon to over 27 minutes. I often asked myself the same question that Jack Nicholson did. "What if this is as good as it gets?"
Once ravaged by injury, it's hard to let it go. If the nagging is no longer in your back, or your knee, or your shin, it still remains firmly entrenched in your head. Phantom pain. Fear of recurrence can be long lingering, and may remain long after the physical pain has subsided. It's a very unclear demarcation point between injury recovery and injury recovered.
The last two years have been one continual improvement, if you entertain the thought that improvement isn't always measured by a clock. I still rarely break 23 minutes for a 5K, and I am, in fact, not as fast now as I was this time last year. But I am one year further distanced from what was once pain, and continued to remain a painful memory for much too long. I am again a runner who enjoys every run, and thinks more about my next step than past ones. And I can't help but to think once again about getting faster.
Today, I see things a lot differently than I did on May 21st, 1983, when, referring to a dreadfully slow 10K time of 46:30 I first said, "I never thought I'd run this slow again." I've run much faster than that since then, and then I've run much slower. Last year, I managed a 10K in 47:30, and I was thrilled. I kicked off this year with a 48:55, and I was elated. Today, I look at that same 46:30 I ran on that warm May morning, and I say to myself "Some day, I will run that fast again."
The time remains the same. It's everything else that has changed.
Michael Selman Roads Scholar Atlanta Georgia USAMichael Selman is a freelance writer who has appeared in publications and web sites throughout the world, including Runner's World, Footnotes, and CoolRunning.