Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Losing at everything

Posted By on 10.02.12 at 06:48 AM

With the Chicago Marathon coming up this weekend, I recently took a look at some past Reader articles on marathoning—something I'd much rather read about than do. There are a few interesting ones, including a profile of tiny Kenyan runner Joseph Kahugu and an account of the 2006 marathon focusing on a wheelchair racer. What caught my attention, though, was a 2004 piece on John Bingham titled "The Man Who Ruined Running."

Bingham promotes an approach to marathons that emphasizes finishing the race over doing it quickly; his books include No Need for Speed and Marathoning for Mortals. Anyone can be a runner, he says, if they just slow down. It's proved to be a controversial stance—there are even those who argue that he's partially responsible for the fastest American racers becoming slower over the years—but I like his way of thinking. There's a certain freedom, even joy, that comes from participating in a sport without caring about speed or winning.

I got a lot of practice at losing in high school, when I was a member of two very bad sports teams. My friends recruited me for field hockey freshman year because they had ten players and needed one more to field a team (another person joined after I did, so we had one sub unless someone got hurt or couldn't make it to a game). We played mostly against Catholic schoolgirls who'd been doing it since they could walk. I, on the other hand, had literally never seen a field hockey stick before; I remember being surprised at my first practice that it looked different from an ice hockey stick. Needless to say, I wasn't overfamiliar with the intricacies of the game, and most of my teammates weren't far ahead of me. I can count on both hands the number of games we won in the four years I was there (and probably still could even if I lost a few fingers).

Swim team was similar, except that I already knew how to swim when I joined—which is more than I can say for some of my teammates. It's the only team I've ever heard of that people joined in order to learn how to swim. We weren't exactly a force to be reckoned with in the pool. For one thing, we didn't have enough people on the team to fill the spots we were allotted in swim meets, which hurt us in terms of earning points. For another, most of us were slower than the swimmers on the other teams. That didn't help with the points either.

There was also the issue of the diving team. All the other schools had them. Our pool, however, lacked a diving board (because my school district lacked money), which meant we also lacked a diving team. So during the part of the meet where the diving competition was supposed to happen, we'd either watch the other team's divers go through their paces or, if it was a home meet, skip the whole thing. Either way, our competitors would win the diving portion by default and get a bunch of points.

Miracles don't happen much in swimming. There's a reason The Mighty Ducks took place on an ice rink rather than in a pool. Individual swimmers might improve their times by a second or two in a given event, but if your team routinely loses by 50 points or more, there isn't much hope you're ever going to win. And we didn't. We did have fun, though: we played water basketball and water polo on Fridays, and one year, in the week before conference tournaments—when most teams are training hardest—we spent our time making up dives off the starting blocks and the side of the pool and having our own little diving competition. No one placed at conference, but I remember doing very well in our mini diving meet.

One of Bingham's best-known quotes is: "I am a runner because I run. Not because I run fast. Not because I run far. I am a runner because I say I am. And no one can tell me I'm not." I haven't played field hockey in years, but I still swim sometimes. And I'm a runner too, when I feel like it, though I've never once competed in a race. I run at my own pace—which I'm guessing is pretty slow, but I don't really know. I've never timed myself.

Read more from Marathon Week, this week's Variations on a Theme:

Introduction
"How I won the marathon*," by Steve Bogira
"How I won and lost the Chicago Marathon," by Deanna Isaacs

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