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Junque Miles:

By Mark Roberts

Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Road Racing

No, this isn't one of those nauseating new-age-coffee-table-book-style articles on how an amazingly sensitive guy (like myself) culled poignant nuggets of wisdom from everyday experiences. They're part of a new literary genre that seems to be flourishing at the moment in the form of books with titles like "How Holistic Real Estate Sales Let Me Find Inner Peace" and "101 Beautiful Thoughts I Had After Seeing My Infant's First Upchuck". This is a manly man article about gaining poignant nuggets of wisdom from racing motorcycles at triple digit speeds and running marathons. I'd like to think it'll help you become a better person and elevate your testosterone levels at the same time. These two effects are usually considered to be mutually exclusive but that's just one of the pieces of conventional wisdom I'd like to explode in this column. (Another is how people who write columns for web pages don't get fabulously wealthy from it, but I don't seem to be making nearly as much headway on disproving that one.)

Coming into the running scene from years of road racing motorcycles gave me a different perspective from the one most runners have when they first get into competition. And not just because running doesn't present opportunities to get thrown across the infield of Pocono Raceway at violent speeds or spend enough time airborne during a crash at Summit Point to qualify for frequent flier miles before making a painful interface with the asphalt. There are those who've suggested I have a "different" perspective on many other subjects and have offered assorted theories as to how I arrived at said perspective. We won't get into that subject now though. I now present herewith some of my keen observations arising from my varied racing experiences:

The slower you are to start with, the easier it is to improve.

When you tell people you've taken 5 minutes off you 5k time in the past three years there's absolutely no need to tell them what your old time was. Or what your new time is. (I mean if you reveal one they can figure out the other. Even most marathoners are bright enough to do math this basic.) Use this tidbit of wisdom when you're trying to encourage someone to start racing or just start running. Run your first few races even slower that the snail-like pace of which you think you're capable. You can have fun meeting great people at any pace. And you can have even more fun annoying them a few races later when they expect to beat you and you vanish into the distance before the half way point!

You can't win a race in the first mile, but you can lose it in the first mile.

With motorcycle racing it's usually a matter of not being aggressive enough at the beginning and losing touch with the people you want to beat. With runners it's almost always going out too fast in the first mile. Either way the result is the same: a poorer result than that of which you are truly capable. Runners have a definite advantage though because runners who overcompensate by going out too slow will usually benefit enough later in the race to make up for it. Motorcycle road racers who overcompensate by going out too fast end up doing some off-track weed collection and sometimes get to see what the inside of an ambulance looks like.

Never underestimate how bad the person in front of you feels.

I learned this in a 5k when I was less than a mile from the finish. For most of the race I had been following a runner who I'd always thought of as a lot faster than myself. I had pretty much resigned myself to being pleased with at least finishing close to him for once when, about a half mile from the finish, I decided to just push a little and see what happened. What happened is that he got closer. Then he got beside me and then he got behind me. I kept pushing and just waited for him to come by. At the finish I was far enough ahead that I didn't even have to kick to beat him. (Admit it: that's your favorite way of finishing a race too.)

Never overestimate how bad the person behind you feels.

This is a corollary to the previous gem. Most runners don't have as much of a problem with this one though; most of us do it instinctively. As Slartibardfast said in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "Oh, that's just normal paranoia. Everyone in the universe has that". So use it to your advantage.

Do or not do. There is no try.

Oh no! What have I come to? Quoting Yoda from Star Wars! Still, it's true. Most of the beginners who get hurt racing motorcycles do so when they think "Well, I'll sorta try this passing line (or whatever) and if it seems to be working out part way through, I'll really go for it". If what you're trying is worthwhile, put yourself into it completely or you'll just increase your chances of failure. If I ever finish ahead of you in a race and you think you're a better runner than me…you're probably right. If you are I'll bet this is the reason I beat you.

Most opportunities present themselves only once.

Especially the really good ones. Many times when road racing bikes I spent an entire race behind someone I should have passed because I hesitated when I had the opportunity. Fearing the forces of friction and rapid deceleration (all right, crashing) made me hesitant to act when I had a chance. If you want to run your first marathon, or achieve any other personal goal that is important to you, you should go for it when you have the opportunity, even when you're afraid of the consequences should it go wrong. (And with a marathon those consequences can be reeeally unpleasant. Remind me to tell you about that some time.) When I raced bikes I got to learn this lesson several times a weekend until I found a way of dealing with the fear and taking advantage of opportunities when they appeared. There are some goals for which opportunities might appear only once in a lifetime.
There's still time to train for that fall marathon…Or whatever.

Copyright © 1999 Mark Roberts

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