I find the limitations of language frustrating. I often meet runners who say they want to “be fast” but that’s not exactly what they want. They might currently be running a twenty-five minute parkrun and think “being fast” is running twenty-three minutes. Other times when they drop back to twenty-six minutes they say they’re “losing their speed”. But “speed” and “fast”, even “slow” are all relative terms.
Currently I’m reading Chris MacDougall’s latest book, “Running with Sherman” where he talks about his experiences living in Amish country while training a donkey for an ultra race. In one chapter he details running on the Full Moon with the Amish people deciding to only do five miles as they’re running under starry skies without lighting. Meanwhile Ame, one of the first Amish runners, runs the ten mile run “fast” arriving back shortly after MacDougall has finished. That sounds incredible but then MacDougall mentions Ame can run a 2hr54 marathon which suggests he’s running ten miles in about an hour in which case MacDougall must be plodding along at something like ten minutes per mile. Neither of those paces sounds as fast as they come across in his description.
In his more famous book “Born to Run” he writes about how a group of Tarahumara Indians from Mexico competed in the Leadville 100 (mile ultramarathon) easily beating the rest of the field because they capable of running big distances at incredible paces. Except they were running one hundred miles in twenty hours so 12min/mile. While it is incredible to be able to cover that distance, it’s not incredibly fast which is the implication when you read it. Of course, as a writer, he’s trying to make his story appeal rather than go into the details whereas I’m always been interested in the details as much as the story. The danger of reading this vague language is you come away believing you can run incredibly fast at parkrun through ultra training.
The top sprinters in the world have genuine speed and are incredibly fast. Usain Bolt reaches a peak speed of over 27mph running the 100m, averaging 23mph. Meanwhile Eliud Kipchoge runs the marathon at 13mph which is half of Usain Bolt’s top speed. It’s also the equivalent of a fourteen minute parkrun. From there the rest of us are getting slower. Ten mph is scraping under nineteen minutes while that twenty-five minute parkrunner is barely running 7½ mph. When you get down to thirty minutes you’re barely running at a quarter of the speed, Usain Bolt averages.
The point here is not to rag on about people’s levels of ability, it’s about the use of language. Watch out when people say someone else is “fast”, or claim they’re “losing their speed”, are too “slow” or “not fast enough”. They could probably improve all those things easily with a few sessions of sprinting but whether it would do their race times any good is debateable. Specific language like “running at 9min/mile pace” can ensure everybody is on the same page about expectations. From a coaching perspective being specific provides decent insight into what needs to be done to improve.