The Incredibly Personal Question of Pace

Why is it that we avoid telling other runners how fast we run?

I’ve noticed something about meeting other runners and talking shop, especially talking about training for and running marathons: we tend to avoid mentioning pace.

I’m happy to ask the other person how many races they’ve run, or how long they’ve been running, what kind of training plans they’re using, or what they think of different courses. And obviously topics like awesome blisters, different cross-training activities, and post-run celebrations are key.

But until I know another runner much better, I’ll dance around the question of pace as if it didn’t exist. When the information finally does come up – when it’s either offered or asked – it’s often done almost apologetically. This is something I picked up on quickly as a newbie, talking to other, more experienced runners.

At first, I assumed it was a matter of pride, some general unwillingness to want to seem over-competitive, and the awkward feeling that comes from finding out you’re much faster, or much slower, than the other person. And those are factors. But it’s also something more.

No one wants to feel like their hard earned marathon time is worth less, simply because they didn’t run faster. And every marathon time is hard-earned, even when it’s not a personal best.

This struck me particularly hard last Wednesday as I struggled to make my time goals during intervals (watching a coworker speed past me), and it struck me again this past Sunday as I struggled to make my time goals during my long run – despite handily passing a number of runners out for similar early-morning jaunts.

My time goals are very much my own. One runner may find them laughably slow. And yet another runner still might find them impossibly difficult.

So asking about a fellow marathoner’s goal pace isn’t just being impolitic. Unless you’re planning to go for a run together, it’s also useless information – if I tell you I’m trying to run my next marathon at a certain pace, that doesn’t tell you whether I’m phoning it in, being a little too ambitious, or whether I’ve dialled in on a challenging but doable effort.

In fact, the only person who really knows that is me.  And I only know it by constantly testing myself, and figuring out what my goal pace is, or should be.

This is something that I really love about running. The goal is both easy – run your fastest – and maddeningly difficult. Because what, exactly, is my fastest? The only way to know is to run it.  I’m proud of the number I’ve achieved. But, like many runners, I want a lower number. And I want to see just how low I can get that number.

But it’s also something I very much hate about running. Running is a hard sport to connect with others over. Unless you’re talking about relay races, it’s not really a team sport. And unless you’re among a few top elites, the rankings are largely meaningless. In football or soccer, in tennis, or even bowling, you face off against an opponent, and spend the entire game trying to beat them.

But in running? There’s rarely an adversary until near the end. And it’s always just you anyway.


Subscribe to Runner's World

Related Articles