Dear Mr. I.
Posted on November 22nd, 2011
This Spring, a guy I knew from going to school together told me to my face that my race times don’t seem very fast to him.
We were having dinner at some Mexican place he’d selected, and he was quizzing me about my running with an air of agitation, when that sentiment popped out of his mouth. I don’t know. Maybe it was payback because I wasn’t as impressed with the eggplant-based nacho dip at the restaurant as he’d promised I would be. But it took me aback. It seemed like one of those things you don’t say out loud, even if you’re thinking it.
Mr. I. then went on to tell me that he himself had done a “twenty-minute” 5K compared to my 22:11, back in his late twenties, when he was in the Air Force.
Later, my friend Scott was incredulous. “He was comparing his time to yours — across gender lines? When he was almost twenty years younger? And in shape for military service?”
“Yes,” I confirmed.
I don’t know for sure if twenty minutes means twenty minutes. Even the pros call 20:59 a “twenty minute” time. But, let’s assume it does.
I’ve discussed age-graded times before in this blog. In addition, men have a roughly ten percent cardiovascular advantage over women. This is borne out in world record times, which are regularly separated by that much. (More for sprints and less for marathon distances, and none for ultramarathons, where women have endurance advantages; but I’m no ultramarathoner, so that doesn’t really help me!) As most people know, testosterone produces more muscle mass and less essential bodyfat. In addition, testosterone also produces more hemoglobin in the blood to carry oxygen, and more enzymes in the muscles to process oxygen.
The end result is that Mr. I.’s PR in his twenties, at two minutes faster than mine, was actually nowhere near mine. He would have had to have run 17:36 to my 22:11, just to be at the same fitness level. Conversely, to be at his fitness level then, I would get to run my 5K now a full three minutes slower than I do, another whole minute on each mile!
That’s not really the point, I guess. The point is that my feelings were hurt by a guy with a lot of intelligence and personality and life experiences and personal achievements who felt compelled to make that comparison, and moreover, to try to win the comparison.
I don’t think all men are like this, and I don’t think all people are like this. There are many people in my life, those I know well and those I know slightly, who are really proud of me. But there are also the twenty- or fifty-something-year-old guys who aggressively and dangerously push by me in the finishing chute at races to beat me by a second. There is the chunky woman in a triathlon who illegally blocked me with her bike for a mile to try to keep me from passing her, and the other woman at the same tri who tried to claim my time as hers, and briefly succeeded. There are Runners World articles about the epidemic of people who cut courses short to win or place and then claim the prizes for themselves.
I really don’t get it. I don’t want a prize I didn’t win. I’m not going to block a faster person, and I’m not going to gloat over beating a sixty-year-old woman or a ten-year-old boy.
But someone I knew, not well but well enough to expect better, didn’t care if he hurt my feelings, as long as he felt like he won.