There’s Always Someone Better

The true way to be humble is not to stoop until you are smaller than yourself, but to stand at your real height against some higher nature that will show you what the real smallness of your greatness is. – Philip Brooks

Now that I’ve pretty much maxed out in terms of running distance – I doubt I’ll ever attempt a marathon, and I’m (mostly) OK with that – there’s only one main way to challenge myself in future races: running the same distance faster. So I started looking into how to go fast, picked up some suggested workouts, and drove to the high school track.

I suppose I’m now a passable distance runner. However, since I never ran track as a kid, I had never gotten timed in some of the basic distances that you see in the Olympics or a local track meet. Being a data nerd, I was curious to see how fast slow I really am. With all the miles I’ve done and all my hard work, perhaps I had built up my legs enough that I could be…maybe not fast, but at least respectable at shorter distances, right? So I warmed up and fired off three full-out sprints.

After my 40-yard “dash”, I started laughing and realized that this experiment would not go well. First, I tweaked my left hamstring, which wasn’t used to full sprints. Second, there are two kinds of muscle tissue:

  • Fast-twitch for going really fast over a short distance
  • Slow-twitch for going slower over a long distance

Turns out I’m a little short on fast-twitch muscle fiber.

I had no illusions of becoming Usain Bolt or Michael Johnson, but wow. Here’s a chart of the times for a world-class athlete and for me:

Distance Real Athlete Me Difference
40-yard dash 4.41s, Robert Griffin III 5.97s +35%
100m dash 9.572, Usain Bolt (world record) 15.41s +61%
400m 43.18, Michael Johnson (world record) 1:16.56s +77%

Why am I telling you this? Not self-pity. Not to fish for compliments from my family about how wonderful and fast I am. Not to criticize myself for coming up short. After my first humbling sprint, the 40-yard, I realized how fast the world-class sprinters really are, and it filled me with admiration. Although I felt like I was working extremely hard and felt the wind rushing past me and saw the astroturf blur beside me, compared to a real sprinter, I was a turtle. By the time I finished my 100m dash, Bolt would already be doing his Bolt pose and a victory lap with the Jamaican flag. By the end of my 400m, Michael Johnson would already be sipping champagne in an ice bath after two obligatory interviews and a full stretching routine.

Unless you’re world-class in something and trying to win a championship or gold medal (and let’s be honest – if you are truly that awesome, you’re probably too busy becoming awesome to read my little blog, right?), you probably need a more realistic goal just like me. My goal is simple:

To be myself well

I don’t have to compete against you or anyone else in the things I want to do. Unless my competition is Brenden and Jonathan, I will never win a race outright. I’m not trying to climb the ladder at work or get elected to office. I’m just trying to do my thing, and do it well.

One of the most important things my mom ever told me was to simply do my best with what I have and be happy with the result. If my best was an A or a first-place finish or a green belt, then I should go for that. If my best was a C or an honorable mention, that was always good enough.

I’ve been really successful in some areas and really unsuccessful in others. But in all my pursuits, there’s always someone better – faster, more articulate, better looking, funnier, smarter, stronger, whatever-er. Even if you are the absolute best in the world at something, it’s still only for a time. Your abilities will decline someday and someone else will take over your title. While I greatly admire their achievements, I’m content to just be little old me – faster than some, slower than others, and happy where I am.