When it comes to marathon training, ego must take a backseat

The ego, a subtle enemy. Illustration by Jim Carroll.
The ego, a subtle enemy.
Illustration by Jim Carroll

Last weekend I participated in the Fifth Avenue Mile, an annual event put on by New York Road Runners. The race is a straight shot down Fifth Avenue from 80th Street to 60th Street. As I ran in my heat, I noticed the presence of an old friend who hadn’t accompanied me in a while: ego.

I don’t know if it was the cheering crowds lining the course, the sound of the emcee announcing my name at the finish or just the fact that a professional group of runners was about to race after me, but I felt a sense of pride that was definitely disproportionate to what I was actually doing. As a result, I ran faster than expected and finished with a decent time (which isn’t listed here because my ego is being put on a starvation diet).

It sounds like a good thing, but the point is I could have injured myself. A pulled hamstring or a twisted ankle and I could have been out for the marathon. Ego is a silent enemy when it comes to marathon training. In other sports, ego is celebrated, put on display in the form of touchdown celebrations and basketball pregame team dances. It is clearly visible, basking in the spotlight every chance it gets.

Why isn’t there more ego on display in the world of running? Maybe because there is very little marketing that can be built around a sport where you just run straight, and where the champions look less like action figures and more like really in-shape accountants.

There is no EA Sports Marathon 2014 video game (imagine the thrill of pressing the same two buttons 33,000 times), or hugely popular cereals to entice kids to eat like their marathon heroes: Grape Nuts that tastes like sand, and the prize at the bottom would be a blandly designed package containing more Grape Nuts, or a blandly designed coupon for Grape Nuts (no stickers or trading cards here).

In running, the only place for the ego is in the head — a real inside job — making it a cunning foe. It’s the voice that says, “That injury isn’t so bad, just go out for a few extra miles,” or “It’s only 101 degrees, it’s not that hot,” or “I can’t believe that snotty little 11-year-old just passed you. Now speed up and bump him into that water station — that’ll teach him some manners.” (OK, that last one was more psycho than ego.)

There is an antidote to ego, however, and I see it displayed on race courses and city streets almost every day: humility. It seems to be the one thing that bonds us all, runners and non-runners alike. In a world where ego is rewarded grandly and lives big and loud, humility is the true measure of one’s character that brings with it a compassion that transcends sports. An act of humility is a quiet and invisible one, where no one keeps score; one that looks out for the good of fellow men over the fortune of personal gain. And whether we are running the marathon on Nov. 3 or just cheering from the sidelines, it’s the one act we can all participate in together.


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