Regular readers won’t know this about me — because why would they — but for years I’ve been an avid runner. I’m also an avid soccer fan and, until a couple years ago, an avid player. Unfortunately, I’m also getting older so playing soccer at a competitive level — which is not all that competitive at all — was taking a physical toll. In other words, I was getting more and more sore after games and it was harder to recover.
So, once soccer went away for me, I turned my attentions full on to running. One of the things I wanted to do as a runner was break the 20 minute barrier in a 5k and when I finally did it, I wrote the following piece. And hey, when you’re done reading this for free, why don’t you skip on over to one of the links on the right and buy something from me — buying things always makes you feel better:
By Joe Hohler III
19:59 — this is my goal. 19:59. Simple and clean — one 5k in 19:59. And one I’ve made no secret of, either, like I’ve done with so much other unachievable dross that is better to accept as pure fantasy than anything achievable.
No, 19:59 is my most public of goals. The one I obsess over, the one I wear on my sleeve. It’s the one thing that drives my training and pushes me to be more than a simple finisher — it’s the one that makes me want to compete.
Simple. Touchable. Not unachievable.
And it has to be 19:59. Not 20:01 or even 20:00. No — nothing less than 19:59 will do. Better would be fine, but less is failure. And even though only a single second stands between one and the other — 19:59 to 20:00 — that second might as well be an abyss. An uncrossable canyon where one side is incomparable success and the other is abject failure.
And yet, the difference between them is not a second — it is less than a second. After all, the real difference isn’t between 19:59 and 20:00, it’s between 19:59.99 and 20:00.00. The only thing that matters is the 19 in front of it all and whether it leads a 59.00 or a 59.99 or anything in between makes no difference, making the true divide between here and there a mere .01 of a second. A whisker of an eyelash of time so small it cannot be perceived by the naked eye. It takes longer just to think about how minimal the amount of time is.
And yet, to me, it is an eternity. A thus-far-uncrossable divide.
In truth I have been on the other side. Just once. That’s all. Once.
And because it was only that once, and was outside my standard best time by more than 20 seconds, I doubt I ever truly got there at all — it had to be a mistake.
And if not a mistake, then a dream. A lovely dream, yes, but a dream just the same.
But if it was not a dream — and the medal and official time from it tell me it was not — there are other reasons to pick it apart, mostly because of the nonchalance of the organization. The starting line hardly a starting line at all. No flags, or timing mats, or even so little as a line painted across the road to mark it. The only indication we were to start ‘here’ and not ‘somewhere else’ being the very unofficial-looking official pointing to one patch of blacktop and declaring it the start when it very well could have been any patch.
Then the course — unmarked, without flags or painted lines or cones or marshals or any of the other usual things you’d find in even the most casual of races to point the way. No, there was merely a lone bicyclist to follow and as soon as the leader bolted out ahead, practically overtaking the bike, a shaggy mess of runners was left to follow a leader they could not see — if stray corners were inadvertently rounded off and the course somehow straightened, no one would have known.
Given everything to doubt it, I do doubt it and wonder if the one time I did cross that divide, to the 19:59.99 side of the chasm, ever really happened at all.
But even as I doubt the result and my ability to replicate it, the truth is I know I can do it — I know I can because I have. I’ve been doing it for weeks, doing it so regularly I’m now crushing 19:59 and feeling avaricious of 18:59.
But even as I’ve done it I know it’s not real — they’ve been treadmill runs and because I’ve only truly crossed the divide on a treadmill profoundly cheapens the achievement and saps it of any feeling of realness. After all, it’s easy to set a treadmill to a speed and follow along, letting that cruel taskmaster dictate my pace along a consistent, nearly-flat course. The hard thing is taking that same run out into the real world, full of undulating roads and inconsistent weather and where I have to set my internal speedometer to do what the treadmill always did for me.
Working at it — 19:59.99 — and never really getting there, I’ve wondered if this is what Roger Bannister felt in search of 3:59. That while the difference between 4:00 and 3:59 is minimal, every time he hit 4:02 and 4:03 without getting across the line must have been a crushing failure of the highest order. A promised land so close, yet always so far.
And to me, 19:59 is the promised land. It’s the one thing I strive for. It’s the one thing I crave. It doesn’t matter it’s a time others can do with ease and scoff at in the same way I scoff at those who seem to kill themselves for 24:00 — it only matters that it is my Waterloo. It’s the one thing I must have. One honest-to-goodness run where I have absolutely no doubts with any of it. Where the course was fair and not merely a series of downhills-upon-downhills. Where the starting line and the course were well-marked — better, that they were measured not once, but twice. And where, for one day, everything is perfect and I can revel in the purity of 19:59 as an absolutely unquestioned accomplishment and know that even if I lost the race, I at least crossed the divide.