Running Rhetoric

I’ve always been fascinated by the way in which language is used to express things. As individuals, we all have unique ways of communicating with others, and we all communicate in different ways depending on who we are talking to. Everyone in the world could tell the same story in their own words and there would be nearly as many variations as there are people.

Collectively, though, things seem to move in the other direction. As communities and cultures develop their narratives, they tend to take the unique words of the masses and combine them into one rhetorical voice that comes to represent dozens, hundreds, thousands, or sometimes even millions of people. As members of these communities and cultures, we adhere to these words, oftentimes without even thinking about what we are saying. In this sense, entire countries develop notions, phrases, expressions, and ways of using language that are completely different than other countries who speak the same language. Within countries, you end up with dozens of cultural groups who are all technically speaking the same language, but who essentially have no idea what is being said by other groups.

Ultrarunning culture is certainly not immune to this trend. Spend a day hanging out at a 100-mile race and pay attention to how language is used for all these runners to communicate with each other. Then imagine yourself having never run a step in your life, and thus having never talked to other runners. These crazy endurance freaks may as well be speaking an entirely different language. As with any subset of society, we as runners, and even specifically ultrarunners, have developed entire notions and phrases that we take as fact. In many cases we’re not even sure why we subscribe to these things, or what they mean exactly, but again, this is the way in which language is often used within societal groups.

In the past couple weeks, I’ve thought a bit more than usual about these rhetorical notions and phrases within the running community. I think this has been the case because these things really shine through on the sport’s brightest stages, and it certainly doesn’t get any brighter than Western States and Hardrock within 13 days of each other (rhetoric intended). In following online discussions of these two races, it was fascinating to hear some of the things which seemed to come not just from the voice of one or two individuals, but from the culture as a whole. Often these notions are spoken by one individual, but they are presented in a way that makes them sound like indisputable facts.

Some of my “favorite” running related rhetorical notions that have come up these past few weeks include the following:

A rookie will never win Western States and/or Hardrock, or that rookies are at severe disadvantage in these and other big races.

As with most rhetorical notions, there is some value in this statement. Certainly course experience and knowledge can be of some benefit, but there are so many historical examples of rookies winning and doing very well at big races all over the world that it should come as no surprise to anyone that a race rookie just won Hardrock two weeks after one took second at Western States. This is something that happens all the time, and should make it obvious to anyone who pays much attention to these kinds of things that race experience actually plays a fairly small role in the outcome of a race. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t have some effect on the race, but I think history has shown that it’s much less than our rhetoric makes it out to be.

In Western States this year, Rob Krar even did a lot to disprove the idea that a rookie at the 100-mile distance has little or no chance of winning a high-level 100-mile race. I think this notion does, however, have a lot more historical weight to it, and is in fact more of a reality. Almost everyone who runs their first hundred walks away feeling like they learned things in the experience that would make doing that distance again much easier, and potentially much faster. The higher level of accuracy to this rhetorical notion makes Krar’s performance even more remarkable, but it also shows that this notion isn’t quite the guaranteed truth that it is so often made out to be. It is also worth remembering here that Krar did not win Western States. Had he run a few hundreds previously, would he have won? It’s hard to say, but it certainly wouldn’t have hurt his chances.

Another one of my favorites is: the race begins at _____ (fill in a location to fit the specific race).

Geoff Roes - Foresthill - 2013 Western States 100

Geoff Roes running out of Foresthill with pacer Dave Mackey during his 2010 win. Photo: Bob MacGillivray

To use Western States as an example, you so often hear people talk about how the race begins at Foresthill or the river crossing. Honestly, this one is probably the most amusing example of ultrarunning rhetoric that I can come up with. I’m actually not even sure what this is supposed to mean, but I hear people say it all the time. I guess the idea is that certain races tend to have a lead change at least once more after these points in the race. But to then assume that the physical, strategic, and tactical aspects of racing haven’t yet begun until that point couldn’t be further from the truth. I guess the idea is to touch on the importance of not going out too hard, but this then also implies that the real racing within a race occurs mostly when we are nearing the end and are scratching and clawing our way to get the finish as quick as possible, despite the fact that we are completely spent and hurting with every step.

I think the thing that is overlooked by this idea is the reality that it is the subtle racing leading up to these points that has the most influence on how effectively we are able to scratch and claw our way to the finish. Being able to run seven-minute miles on the smooth trails after the river crossing at WS has a lot more to do with what we’ve done to race wisely and effectively up to that point than it does with what we’re doing at that moment.

One last one that I’ve heard these past weeks is: the person who has the most ability to run a few miles the fastest when fresh is almost certainly going to be able to run the fastest at the end of a long race.

You hear this notion a lot in the form of people talking about how they think a certain runner will run with the field for most of the race and then pull away just before the end because they have the most speed in the field. This is another one of these notions that sounds great in theory, but has almost no historical evidence to back it up. It’s just not a speed game at that point. The last few miles of a 100-mile race has nearly nothing to do with leg speed. The runners who win Western States tend to run the last mile in seven or eight minutes, not exactly a blistering pace. This is a game of strength and endurance, not speed. You see this reality come up time and time again in ultras around the world. It happens dozens of times a year that someone gets dropped in the last few miles of an ultra by someone with significantly slower shorter-distance speed.

Personally, I have a hard time thinking of more than just one or two examples of a faster shorter-distance runner out kicking a slower shorter-distance runner in the final few miles of an ultra. Instead the reality seems to generally be the opposite: if you have the fastest 5k time in the entire field in an ultra you better try to build a solid lead before the last few miles, because you are likely to get out kicked by the “slower” runner who has gotten themselves to that point in the race less on speed and more on strength and endurance, a dynamic that more often than not seems to give them an advantage in the closing miles.

I’ve touched on a few of the big ones here. What else am I missing? Are there more rhetorical notions out there within the language of ultrarunning that you question or find interesting/odd?