If you’ve ever asked a high school cross-country runner after a meet, “How did that go — did you feel good?” you’ll realize instantly that you’ve asked them a question that’s nearly impossible for them to answer in any manner that makes sense to both of you.
Let’s paint a picture of a recent scene. It’s early afternoon on a fall day in Wenatchee. A gauze of haze holds the heat of the September sun and the temperature hovers in the 90s. Almost 1,500 runners, plus coaches, parents and bystanders, plus the moisture generated by the vast expanse of lawn watered last night create a humid micro-climate: we are all damp, breathing creatures in a giant terrarium, each exhale increasing the amount of water vapor lingering around the race course.
The course itself is not particularly physically punishing, except for the sloping hill at the start line and the steeper finish chute. But to get a full 5,000 meters out of it, high school runners must circumnavigate the course twice, first bypassing the finish chute for another lap before making one final push up the hill.
So imagine that you are one of these runners, and you’ve just completed 5K at a pace of just over 5 minutes per mile, and earned a personal best time. You’ve done your cool-down run and you’re stretching your spent muscles in the shade. And then some parent says, “You looked great out there. Did you feel good?”
The honest answer is “No, I didn’t. Running at that pace is grueling — it’s counter-intuitive for anyone with a shred of self-preservation. Your lungs scream for more, more, more oxygen and you can’t deliver it fast enough to keep up with demand. Your quads, hamstrings, and calves threaten to betray you at every step. But the worst is the runner right on your shoulder, breathing — quite literally — down your neck. You’re not sure if it’s his ragged breath or your own you hear, but you know if you falter even for an instant, he will make his move. You are running so hard you think you might vomit, and indeed, if you do, you won’t be the only one.”
But what the high school cross-country runner — unfailingly polite — tells you is this: “It was really hard, but I’m happy with my time — it was a new personal best for me.” Beneath all that diplomacy and understatement, beneath the humility and stoicism, is this truth: He felt good, just not in the moment, and this is why he will do it all again next week, and the week after, and again, and again.