The greatest athlete to watch race is not Usain Bolt or Alyson Felix or Chrissie Wellington. No, the greatest athlete to watch race is that little chubby kid from the playground, the neighbour’s 5 year old daughter and the skater kid who everyone thinks is not playing real sports. Why?
Well, all you need to do, is to go down to your local 10k race with fun run, watch the kids’ fun run and it will be immediately obvious. The kids are ferocious racers, at times reckless, not occupied with tactics. They always find that little bit extra for that mad dash to the finish line. But most of all, the amount of enthusiasm and enjoyment and, particularly, for the youngest ones the sense of achievement to have covered the distance is something adult races completely lack.
When the gun goes, they dash off like mad-cap mavericks at full speed as if the finish line was 100 m down the road. There is no sense of “I’ve got to pace myself because there are 1.9 km left to run”. They just go for it. Sure, some of them die rather fast, but that doesn’t prevent them from doing the exact same thing at the next fun run, where they might last a tad longer. They struggle through the next 1.8 km and some of them will walk, but as soon as they see that big finish banner – that spark comes back, somehow they find strength in their little legs to dash for the finish line with the same breakneck speed that they started with, eyes-wide, complete focus, trying to catch that kid ahead. They don’t care about PBs – it’s that other kid. It’s amazing and infectious, and always makes me wonder when I lost that carelessness to just go out and absolutely hammer it.
Somewhere along the road, we learn that we run out of steam quickly if we dash off too quickly, that 10k is a rather long distance to struggle through. We become tactitians and strategists, carefully orchestrating our races, focused on that PB. While we still say we enjoy racing (and I believe people actually do), as adults we lack that unbound enthusiasm. And somehow, I find that’s a pity.
Occasionally, it happens though that our guard and careful planning goes out the window. Mainly when unexpected things happen. Like at the beginning of the year at the National Cross Country Championships. Due to the condition of the course (knee-deep mud), there had been delays and half way to the start, we heard an announcement that the start was in 3 min. We legged it to the line, ditched our warm layers, just about found our starting pen, found out that the course had been shortened. BOOM! Gun!
My carefully designed race plan was out the window. All I heard was the gun and I legged it out the starting pen, running along with the top 20. It was great! There it was that unbundled joy of running, the excitement of the race. No plan, just blast. I realised I was running along fast and equally I realised that I was gonna die – fast. But it didn’t matter. There for a glimpse was that feeling of what it was like as a kid. And despite the fact that the race was the worst of my whole season, I walked away with a warm, fuzzy feeling.
If you ever need a reminder and an example of what pure, careless enjoyment is like, go down to your local race and watch the kids. No need for big showmanship, no strategy, no agenda – just great athletes.