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Chasing Adam: What Does Racing Mean to You?

Adam Chase ponders how the term "racing" has evolved during the running boom.

This is the first edition of “Chasing Adam,” a new column from longtime running writer Adam W. Chase aimed at telling thought-provoking stories from all corners of the running world.

While I was in graduate school in New York City, there was a woman who worked out in the university gym who was a U.N. interpreter and she always had fun words she’d share. One was “meshuga,” which she explained to me as “a circus in the head.” I always liked that interpretation of the word, even though I already knew it was Yiddish for “crazy.”

Is racing all in your head? In other words, does a running race, regardless of the distance or surface, boil down to what goes on between your ears? And, if so, do you actually need to be racing real people for it to matter?

This is a sort of ontological, “if a tree falls and no one is there to hear it” inquiry, but it has become more relevant of late. Races have always served as focal points, goals that allow participants to concentrate on a specific distance run on a given date. They give purpose to training and periodization, so “racers” may orchestrate the perfect taper and crescendo of energy and honed strength and endurance to be able to give their all, leaving it out on the course, regardless of or, possibly, as the result of the competition.

Changing Times

But races of today are not what they were in the not-too-distant past. “Races” today are, in many cases, what many would characterize as non-races or events. For a lot of people, it’s more about running to finish, running with friends or running just to run, and much less about “racing” or even aggressively chasing a PR. And that’s fine, as long as you get a medal and social media images to prove you were there.

Another big trend that’s happening is what you might call made-up or contrived “projects” that involve no or only virtual competition. The focus, more and more, is on FKTs (fastest know times) and Strava CR (course record), QOM (queen of the mountain) and KOM (king of the mountain) status for having the speediest time running a specific “segment” or route that is tracked on GPS, either on your watch or smartphone.

And then there are those who insist on running OKTs (only known times) only to brag about their FKT on some inane route that nobody else would ever think of, much less want to run. “I have the FKT for 53 laps around the municipal sewage treatment plant.” Yeah, sure, laying down such a bitchin’ OKT is sure to get you signed with a high-stakes running shoe sponsor. No doubt.

Similarly, more and more noncompetitive events, like color runs, gorilla runs, pub crawls, holiday-themed fun runs, run crews and untimed obstacle course races are cropping up on race calendars. They serve a similar purpose of providing an objective for one’s training. They make exercise fun or, at least, less onerous for those who don’t naturally gravitate to removing their derriere from the couch. It isn’t about how fast you complete the course, it is about getting out on the course, getting muddy or colorful or shocked or frozen. And, besides, you still get a medal for completing the course, just like we reward our grade schoolers with blue ribbons, regardless of their finishing place. Hopefully, these intro-level “races” are gateway drugs to competitive endurance events and serve a valuable role in opening people’s eyes and sweat glands to the benefits of outdoor exercise.

Gaming the System

Given Competitor’s readership, this may be difficult to believe, but the vast majority of the world’s population not only doesn’t derive pleasure from running, they actually dislike it. Many detest it. Anything that makes running less of a struggle—be it encouragement from real or virtual friends (“kudos” by Strava parlance), or ratcheting regular training runs up a notch or two by breaking them into segments where you are able to race others who run the same route as parts of their regimen, albeit at different times and with people you will likely never see or know. If you run the segment quickly enough, cataloged by gender, age and even weight classes, you can make a top ranking, the way arcade masters were listed as top-10 video game players back in the day of Pac-Man and Defender.

If gaming serves to get people more active, is there any negative?

And if Strava isn’t your cup of tea, virtual racing may provide the motivation you seek. For those averse to the hoopla of head-to-head racing and the concomitant travel, expense and port-o-lets, there is “virtual racing.” Virtual racing is where you go to one of a proliferation of web sites that will, for a price, send you a bib number you can print out and, upon completion on your terms–you can do it over installments, if you so choose–a finisher’s medal too. You can pick amongst 5K, 10K, half and full marathons to crank up your training with a race on your terms, even on your own treadmill, if you’d like.

One site explains virtual racing as follows: “Want to add some spice to your running routine? Why not register for one of our Virtual Marathons™ Half Marathon or Marathon series runs. Earn one medal and then two and soon you’ll have the whole set. Series runs are the perfect way to stay motivated or to round your medal collection out beautifully! And because you run your race on your own time and at your own pace, they fit into the busiest of schedules.” It boasts the best part as: “You can choose to cover the distance any way you want: Running on a track, the road, on a treadmill, an elliptical or even walking. Take as long as you want to finish. You can do the whole distance all at once or break it up and finish within your own time frame. In other words? A Virtual Marathon fits you, your pace and your schedule perfectly. … Feel free to break it up into several runs if you need to.”

What Gives?

Is one form of running better than another? As long as someone is moving their body through space with a smile on their face, does it matter whether they are doing so with or against others or solo?

There are those who say that the only way one is able to run their fastest is by way of competition or even the perception of it. Examples are Roger Bannister’s breaking of the four-minute mile for the first time in 1954 and Paula Radcliffe’s still unbelievable 2:15:25 world record at the 2003 London Marathon, accompanied the whole way by two males who she insists she ran against, not with. Rabbits in track races and big road marathons have proven so valuable that their use has recently become considered unethical by a growing number of race organizations. Why else would there be complaints of elite women marathoners being “aided” by males who officially or unofficially pace them along the way to faster performances?

But with the advent of non-races, virtual races and similar constructs, you have to scratch your head and wonder if it necessary to race head to head in order to exact your best as a runner? Can simulation be as equally inspirational as the pure physical reality of being beaten by or beating your fellow runners as you push your body to accelerate past them or to try to match their surge? Or, maybe this is all just a circus in our heads?


About The Author:

It’s actually easy to chase Adam W. Chase because, as a guy who just hit 50 and has run more than 150 marathons and ultra-distance races, he’s self-admittedly rather slow. Adam writes a little faster and also serves as President of the American Trail Running Association and works as a lawyer in Boulder, Colo. Adam will be inducted into the Colorado Running Hall of Fame on April 20 in Denver.