If you are doing more than me, you must be out of your mind.
“You know the definition of training insanity?” a friend asked with a sly smile one weekend morning during a long run. It was a rhetorical question, clearly intended as a quip to help pass the time.
“No, what’s the definition?” I smirked, bracing myself for his reply.
“Anyone who trains more than you do!” he cracked, followed by a deep knowing chuckle at the expense of us cliché distance runners.
His point was: as athletes, we’re never quicker to critique others than when their training exceeds our own. Race results may speak for themselves, but how someone trains digs at our ego and pulls at our insecurities.
In a sport founded on basic movement, why as athletes do we twist ourselves into knots through social comparison over something as simple as time on feet?
After all, when any of us who “run for fun” are deemed “crazy” by everyday standards, who’s to say what’s too much? Endurance running as a hobby is a cascading series of efforts, each deemed insane by someone. Covering even a mile every day is inconceivable to many. Ten miles a day is too much for most. Running over 100 miles per week is a threshold that often transfixes empirical hearts, but is beyond absurd to most athletes, and that’s just the start! This pursuit of ever-increasing mileage totals never ends, of course. There’s always someone seemingly more insane. My friend’s point was simply: Who’s to judge what’s sane in a sport founded on exploring extremes?
The odd truth is that in this, at times, mind-numbingly simple sport, we never actually know what a mile feels like on another athlete’s stride. We cannot know how their muscles ache or lungs burn. All we understand is our own effort, and how each day, every mile, we’re confronted with feedback on our own capacity.
So each day is a discovery. As we push against our perceived limits, at times we’re pleased with our body’s ability, other sessions chagrined at its weakness. The sport is an endlessly irritating loop inside ourselves. But that isn’t enough for our competitive minds, so we look to others in search of context.
Amid the variety of ways that endurance sports have changed in the digital era, likely the most jealousy-inducing is the ability to peruse others’ training in detail.
“What, does he even like his wife?!” a friend snarked about another man’s doubling habits. How at the end of a long workday, after having run in the early morning, the man often went out onto the roads again for even more miles. I simply smiled at my friend’s transparent jealousy. Implied was his aspiration to train more if his life’s competing priorities would allow it. How simple the lives of other athletes appear from the outside. After all, we each have the same 24 hours to play within a day.
At some point, the aspiring runner becomes aware of the concept of “doubling,” running more than once a day, and their idea of how many miles are attainable is forever changed. If doubling is possible, what about tripling?
Years ago, as I inquired about a man’s training something wasn’t adding up. He was explaining his sessions to me, how he’d often run at lunch, or sometimes after work. But how did he accumulate so many weekly miles? I asked.
“Night runs,” he answered.
“Yeah, after work, you mentioned that,” I clarified.
“No, Night Miles. Runs after dinner.” His explanation trailed off as my jaw fell slack.
The 130 miles per week he’d mentioned as his “sweet spot” came about by way of lunch runs, after-work runs, and then, additional miles covered well after darkness had settled across the city streets.
I was incredulous.
In disbelief at the idea of completing a run, enjoying the earned relief of a relaxing meal, then embarking again as the clock approached midnight. Why did such training unsettle me so much? What about this friend’s use of 24 hours irked me so? My issue was that he was pushing on my assumptions for how to reasonably frame a day. Following this logic, an endurance athlete’s calendar eventually becomes inverted. The constructs of morning and night, or seven-day weeks, instead become reframed as an endless series of movements interrupted by however much resting, refueling, and recovering they deem necessary. The beauty of a runner’s life: it’s all just chunks of time to fill with more miles.
But a limit must exist, right?
We know it because we feel it. That soreness in our calf. That tightness in our hamstring. The woozy feeling of miles covered that necessitates recovery. Right?
“You said you had to get better, so what did you change, what specifically?” a media member recently asked 2022 4th place World Championships Marathon finisher Cam Levins of Canada.
“Well, I’m running more mileage than ever. Lifting better than ever. Taking on better workouts. Doing double workout days. Anything I could think of, I took on more of. As far as workload goes I don’t think I can do anything more.”
“So what’s the mileage up to?” the media insisted.
“Most weeks 170 to 180 miles. So, I run lots.” Levins’ answer ricocheted around the running world sparking disbelief lined with admiration. Maybe this is what it takes to perform at the world level, many wondered. Yet who among us can endure such a workload?
Though his training totals far outstrip what most amateur athletes can imagine, set within the context of his extreme life, being among the top handful of distance runners globally, maybe they make sense.
As the man’s full-time job, having run for over two decades, he covers 24 to 25 miles in 2-3 hours a day. Almost a short work shift if framed in that way. And yet our minds reject the notion of such behavior because it exists in contradiction to the limits we’ve hard learned out on the road. The tender shin that I swear is “nothing,” and yet later find throbbing in pain while seated at my desk. The weekend long run straight into my son’s soccer practice before an evening date night at which I find myself half asleep. How can some athletes stack together so much training while I can’t seem to manage mileage my peers deem “reasonable”?! I marvel with irritation.
Distance running’s central gift is that as humans we possess a well of ability that we physically cannot or logistically will never reveal the full depth of. As aspiring racers, we’ve witnessed the benefits of increased workload, which leaves us simultaneously inspired and haunted by the constant whisper for more. The dream of arriving on race day with newfound strength gleaned from extra hours of running leaves us always wondering, what if I ran even more?
However, for racers, the mileage isn’t the end goal. Just doing more miles isn’t the same as completing them in pursuit of performance improvement. We’ve all heard of people running in daily “streaks” that last years on end. And I’ve come across outliers who’ve averaged over 100 miles per week for months on end. But that’s training to train. Miles completed as the end in themselves don’t spark nearly the same insecurity in my competitive heart because they don’t feel like a commentary on my own commitment. It’s those who do more in pursuit of similar goals to mine that makes my skin crawl.
In a sport meant to explore the wonder of our body’s ability balanced with the frustration of its limits, why do other athletes’ training totals cut to the core of our insecurity? Maybe it’s because these athletes, the ones we’re so quick to deem “insane,” make us wonder if we’re not insane enough.
What if THAT IS actually what it takes?
What if within this sport, one to which we’ve already given so much of ourselves, we stand to be outpaced by someone willing to go even further?
Maybe I fear that I am actually incapable. That I’m either physically not durable enough to withstand the pounding of the miles necessary, or maybe more unsettlingly, that in the sport that I profess to love, I’m actually unwilling to invest as much as he is.
Does this “insane” man love running more than me?
I train each day in fear of arriving at the starting line having already been beaten. And I catch myself feeling incredulous at others’ “extreme” training because of what I most fear: that before experiencing another athlete’s toughness or grit, I’ll have already been bested by his willingness to imagine beyond the limits of my too-prudent mind.