Why “Is a fast mile more impressive than a slow marathon?” is the wrong question

Image description: Left half is a black and white picture of Roger Bannister, wearing a running tank with two stripes across the chest and the number 41 pinned in front, running through the finish line string, mouth wide open, eyes closed, having just broken the four-minute mile. The right half is blue with white print from a plaque that reads "Here at the Iffley Road Track the first sub-four minute was run on 6th May 1954 by Roger Bannister.
Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile on May 6th, 1954. Yes, that was impressive!

When I read the headline of the opinion piece  “A fast mile is more impressive than a slow marathon” I first thought to myself “that’s probably right.” Why? Because I’ve never done a fast mile. But I have done a slow marathon. And I didn’t think it was all that impressive. I just hauled myself forward step after step until I got the end and the entire thing was a horrible nightmare. Given the two options, a fast mile sounds impressive.

Second thought: but what’s really impressive is a fast marathon. Honestly. I’m blown away by people who can do 5K in under 20 minutes. But the people who do a full marathon in under 2.5 hours. Wow.

Third thought: why do we have to think of our running in terms of what’s “impressive”? I mean really. If I,we, you could just run and enjoy myself and not have to be impressed to feel good about it, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

This is not to say that athletic achievement isn’t impressive. There is something wonderful about the people who can run a fast mile. And there is something wonderful about a person who is not fast, for a mile or for a marathon, running a mile as fast as they can or covering the marathon distance at whatever pace they can muster.

The author of “A fast mile is more impressive than a slow marathon,” Martin Fritz Huber, puts his cards on the table when he says:

Call it the bias of a former track runner, but I’ve always believed there’s something vacuous and a little gimmicky about celebrating distance purely for distance’s sake. It’s the same thing that annoys me about one-upmanship in obstacle-course racing: the idea that the only way to “push the envelope” is by tacking on more miles or adding a larger vat of electrified manure for contestants to plunge into.

Here’s where we need to get to the big tent idea. Maybe tacking on distance is a challenge some people find rewarding, and running a short distance really fast is the challenge of choice for others. Huber he knows “dedicated 5K runners who have zero interest in the marathon but could qualify for Boston in their sleep” (I’m going to say that’s got be an exaggeration because no matter how fast you are in your 5K, to qualify for Boston you have to run a marathon, and not many people can do that without at least a bit of training).

The point he really wants to make, I think, is that a fast 5K or a fast mile or a fast short distance is an athletic achievement. Agreed. But do we have to diss people who are out there to challenge themselves in different ways to appreciate that some athletic achievements happen in concentrated bursts?

Asking which is “more impressive” is the wrong question because impressive” is relative to the person. An impressive bike time for me is completely ho hum for Sam. And if someone who hasn’t been able to run around the block without stopping has a breakthrough and can make it, and then can make it 2K, and then 5K, and then 10K, and then a half marathon and then a marathon, that’s impressive even if the times aren’t stand-out times.

An elite athlete who has a “bad day” is still going to have an enviable performance even if it’s not “impressive” for her. So you just can’t answer the question of which is more “impressive” without knowing something about the person’s history, capability, and potential.  Articles like Huber’s are meant to be provocative. If you doubt that, just read the comments.

I’m not trying to start the same conversation here. More than that I’m interested in hearing whether you think there are better questions we should be asking ourselves, questions that allow us to appreciate our athletic achievements no matter who we are.

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