Running and the Pursuit of Excellence

Running and the Pursuit of Excellence

A couple weeks ago, when I wrote about my decision to DNS a race, my thoughts were geared towards the end of becoming a better runner. I don’t like to do things half-assed; I want to pursue excellence in the areas of my life that mean the most to me.

But why does it matter for a solidly middle-of-the-packer like myself to focus on excelling in a sport? I’ll never toe the starting line of an Olympics race. I may never win a race.

But that doesn’t stop me from using my gifts, whatever they may be, and pursuing my personal best, excellence for myself, in the sport of running. So today, I want to think out loud a little bit about running and the pursuit of excellence.

Be who you are and be that well, to quote Francis de Sales. We have gifts, potential, talents, passions, whatever you want to call them, because we are meant to use them.

Thousands of people throughout the world surely desire to run, yet are unable to run. Perhaps they lost their legs in battle, perhaps a disease paralyzed them, perhaps the social conditions of their homeland making running literally a threat to their livelihood. So for those of us who can run and enjoy it – to not strive to work towards our potential is a squander of a gift.

While being a runner should only be one aspect of many of your identity, if you enjoy running, you should strive for excellence in it. Likewise, your pursuit of excellence in running should complement your pursuit of excellence in the other areas of your life: becoming a better runner should complement your journey to becoming a better person.

Running and the Pursuit of Excellence

According to the philosopher Thomas Aquinas, the virtue of excellence is related to the virtue of fortitude (bravery). And when you consider this, it makes sense. How often do you hold yourself back because you’re afraid of failure, discomfort, or commitment to a goal? Fear prevents us from striving for excellence in our sport.

Excellence in running has very little to do with the time on the clock; for if a 2:xx marathon were the measure of excellence, then very few of us could achieve it. But excellence is a virtue, not a finish time.

This does not mean beating up your body with overtraining or pushing yourself to the point of injury again and again. This does not mean that you must make every race a PR. I would argue that such mentality actually goes against the virtue of excellence as a runner, because it’s quite difficult to be an excellent runner when you’ve run your body into the ground.

This does not mean you focus obsessively on running, at the cost of your health, family, and livelihood. Like all virtues, excellence is found in the happy medium, in doing what is appropriate for your circumstances.

A 45-minute 5K runner and a 15-minute 5K runner both can pursue excellence since excellence is in relation to their abilities and circumstances. Their training may be different, their finish times may be different, but what matters is the dedication, hard work, commitment, and love of the run.

Striving for excellence inspires others to strive for excellence in their lives. Whether you’re watching elite runners, friends setting PRs, or the back of the pack runners giving it their all over a 6 or 7 hour marathon, you always feel inspired seeing the accomplishments of others. 

Striving for excellence reflects our innate dignity as human beings. We were created with bodies that are capable for movement. Our very physiology lends itself towards athleticism: our hearts, lungs, muscles, bones, and even our blood responds to the stress of hard physical activity through becoming stronger and better.

Striving for excellence is not “doing it for the Insta” or to beat someone on Strava. Striving for excellence is not giving up when you have a bad race or chasing after every “next best thing” in training. Striving for excellence is individual and does not fall into the snare of the comparison trap. Striving for excellence is also not a single-minded focus that neglects all other aspects of life for one goal (because is that really truly excellence?).

Striving for excellence embraces suffering. A mark of an excellent runner is the ability to handle discomfort and endure through bad miles. We call ourselves endurance athletes, and to endure quite literally means to suffer and persevere through that suffering. It comes from the Latin word indurare, which means “to harden.” 

Strive for excellence in your running because you are capable, because you have a gift, because you have the desire, because you find joy in the miles. You are always more than just a runner, but there is something good in striving to be the best runner you personally can be.

And, as with everything, this doesn’t just apply to running – the pursuit of excellence, doing something well because you can, can be done in any area of life: parenthood, marriage, career, writing, hiking, any good thing. 

[Tweet “How do you pursue excellence in your #running? #runchat via @thisrunrecipes”]

What motivates you in your running?
In which areas of your life are you currently pursuing excellence?

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24 Responses

  1. I agree that excellence needs to be associated with bravery, especially when reaching excellence requires doing the things you may not feel comfortable doing. And I guess sometimes excellence is accepting the current limits of our bodies but still striving to be better. Its frustrating when you want to work hard at something but first have to show a great deal of patience before you can even put in that work.

    1. Yes, it is! We all have our current limits and part of becoming better is working within our abilities and circumstances. Patience is important also but so hard in running, especially when we’ve been doing it for years.

  2. I couldn’t agree more! Striving for excellence is all about the one-on-one, which is me against me! Or, more appropriately, me FOR me. Of course I try to win a race or my age group but what is ultimately most important to me is besting myself! And, sometimes it has nothing to do with my finish time but having the courage to start or overcoming obstacles (mentally and physically) during a race or training. Love it!!

    1. Thank you! Me for me – I love that! You’re so right about the courage to start – the start of a training cycle or even more so the start of the race is intimidating, especially when we are aiming for a personal best.

  3. I am quick to take on pursuits, and then to realize that OMG there’s a lot that goes into them. Not that I don’t think about it before, but I usually assume that I can handle what is going to get thrown at me. The marathons that are my best are the ones that I go into thinking that I am going to be in a world of hurt and pain, and then they go so well. The hardest races I have done have been the ones where I was sooooo excited to run, and then the hurt came. But at the same time, I’ve been extremely proud of those races, because the hurt made me WORK.

    1. I think the expectation of hurt and discomfort is sooooo important for doing well in running – and life! But then working through that hurt is even more important because it always does come.

  4. I don’t think the people who will never be Olympians or even Boston finishers should have to apologize for striving to be our best. I’m the same way as you, and it’s just part of our personalities. We spend money on races, we spend time and energy on training, and it’s perfectly natural to want it all to mean something and to want to do the best we can at it. I get a little tired of people who roll their eyes at competitive runners and say things like “you shouldn’t need races/training to stay motivated, the love of running should be enough!” Enough for them, maybe, but we’re all different and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to improve. It’s part of human nature. So is competition.

    That said, I totally agree that pushing too hard and wearing down your body is counterproductive to the pursuit of excellence. If, god forbid, something happened and I became one of those people in the world who doesn’t have the ability to run, it wouldn’t make me feel better to see you pushing yourself into exhaustion and unhappiness for my sake.

    1. I love running and did it for years without competing – but then I’ve found that competing has made me love it even more. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy competitive urge.
      And yeah – to push oneself into exhaustion and a hatred for the sport is also a squander of the gift. To improve we need to push past our comfort zones, but only just enough – a happy medium of training.

  5. Tom was a smart guy–fear paralyzes us and uses us. I really liked this post, Laura! It feels really good to holistically pursue excellence in my life, which meant that I cut BACK on my running because my “excellent” running was taking the excellence out of the rest of my body. 🙂

    1. Fear really does paralyze us – it’s the opposite of action. Whether it’s fear of flying, travel, running alone, or competition – that fear holds us back from living life to the fullest and becoming who we truly are. And you are certainly taking the steps now to excellent running – because running less is better for you overall and that will permeate into your running. I have a good feeling about Skagit for you.

  6. Thank you for this post today. I am finding it difficult to put my thoughts into words, but due to my current mental state for running, the timing of your words is impeccable.

    Have a wonderful day. 🙂

    (yes…these are the only thoughts my brain can muster right now)

  7. Thanks for this post, Laura. I love it and agree about striving for excellence. It is all a mindset. I try to have that mindset each day- even when I started out with a 33 minute 5K and now that I run one in 21 minutes. It takes a lot of guts to get out there and run and train, and to sign up for a race. But it also takes guts to know when to back off, to DNS, or *shudder* DNF if you got injured or something during a race. Excellence in running definitely carries over to the other parts of life like work, school, being a wife/husband/mom/dad/sister/brother etc. It’s not just what we do, it affects who we are.

    1. Thank you, Amy! I didn’t know you started out with a 33 minute 5K – that is seriously impressive that you worked down to 21 (and, just speculating, soon 20 minutes). I agree so much with you that the excellence achieved in running permeates into the rest of our lives – running teaches us commitment, perseverance, and just sucking it up when it’s hard and getting the work done – all valuable traits for life.

  8. The feeling of joy that I get is what motivates me in my running. I just love the peace and that “zen” feeling I get. Of course, I’m a whole lot less “zen” since I’m rehabbing my knee and trying to “retrain” my patella to do what it’s supposed to but I’m definitely pursuing excellence in my physical therapy! I know I’m not going to get a grade or a gold star but I’ll get a better reward – the ability to get back out there and log some miles. 🙂 I started running in high school and used to run road races around DC with my dad. Watching him train and seeing him work hard and push himself and be his absolute best, both out running and while he was serving on active duty, really helped teach me about commitment and keeping promises to yourself. Thank goodness, otherwise I’d be totally down in the dumps, sitting on the couch, drowning my sorrows in bonbons and ice cream. haha

    1. I agree – that zen feeling is fantastic, and it’s a nice balance, a yin-yang, sun/moon of sort, to the competitiveness of racing. I hope your rehab goes well – being able to run again is certainly a reward for all of the hard, at times frustrating, work of returning from injury.

  9. Beautifully said. Pursuing excellence is all about being in tune with yourself and knowing how to best push yourself to grow stronger without being counterproductive and pushing yourself too far towards injury. I feel like too many people often associate “pushing yourself” with “hurting yourself” — while it’s true that growth doesn’t feel EASY, when it interferes with your health and mental stamina that’s the opposite of getting stronger. In running, what motivates me is being outside and feeling connected to the world around me as someone who is able to breathe and blossom as a living being 🙂

    1. Thank you, Hannah! Many people do seem to associate pushing yourself with hurting yourself. But it’s not an either stay the same or get injured improving, it’s a spectrum where improvement is right in the middle in between staying the same (no pushing enough) and hurting oneself (pushing too much). I love that feeling of connection with the natural world that running brings also!

  10. Your post is so meaningful. I found myself in it because sometimes I’m afraid of injury so I don’t dare to go ahead. But your words are so inspiring and I think I found the motivation. Thanks so much for sharing your beautiful thoughts.

  11. I’m a 45 minute 5K runner myself. It’s hard enough as it is. Maybe one day, I will achieve the exalted status of 25 minute 5K runner. Taking it to 15 minutes would mean to reach Olympic levels of fitness!

    If I ever get to 25 minutes… I’ll do cartwheels all day in celebration!

  12. I don’t think the people who will never be Olympians or even Boston finishers should have to apologize for striving to be our best. I’m the same way as you, and it’s just part of our personality – don’t be ashamed!

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