A Very Nerdy Love Letter to Running

I didn’t know what a z score was until I finally took stats this spring. But, basically, on a normal curve, a z score of 2 means you’re at the 97.5 percentile, or, only 2.5 percent of people are better than you at a given thing. That is unequivocally good.

So I’ve been keeping track of my z scores in my races this year, and after I had a hot, not-great race today, I decided to average them out to see how I was doing. On average, over these 7 races, my z score is 1.965. Converted into percentile, that’s about the 95th percentile. Now, you can quibble, saying that the last several people in an NYRR race or similar might be walking or something. But if you’re casting aside those at the end, you’re casting away some hardworking athletes I know. Anyway, if they don’t count, then neither should the professionals at the top who run for a living.

So, 95th percentile on average. Better on cooler days, worse on hotter days. That’s good! I also looked at my Age Graded percentile, and that’s 69.47 (nice). 70 is really the line between “local class” and “regional class,” which I define as “one of the better runners in the city” vs “one of the best runners in the city.”

But it feels like it’s bad. Why does it feel bad? Well, because I used to be superman. I used to be one of the best runners in the city.

I went back tonight and looked at my pantheon period. From the Staten Island Half in October of 2014, through the NYC Half in 2016, a period that included 4 BQ marathons, three of which were in a 6 week period on 2015, and also included the year of 2015 in which I ran every single day, my average z score was 2.19. Z scores are really small, so, in percentile, it’s 97.2. We’re talking about a year and a half where, on average, I finished in the top 3% of finishers. I took zero time off, and I ran hard almost every day. I ran, like I said, 3 marathons in 6 weeks and ran all three of them faster than the BQ standard. And at the time, I had the nerve to be disappointed in both of my best-ever performances. I didn’t hit my lofty goal in the Chicago marathon in 2015 and so I didn’t bother to snag any pictures. And I just missed my 1:20 goal in the NYC half in 2016, so I was annoyed, despite that single race remaining my best AG performance ever.

But physically? I felt super strong every mile. I went into each race ready to attack huge goals, and I only missed them because they were set so high (or low, since we’re talking about running times). I was a goddamn beast.

Outside of running, I was still going out pretty late pretty often. I was going to trivia every week, and running was absolutely the thing in my life I was proudest of. I met Alissa during the year of super running, but we weren’t married. I wasn’t anywhere close to the real challenge a doctoral degree presents. And truth be told, under the hood, I was a mess. I needed running to feel proud. I need running for direction and success. I needed running for stability.

And then what happened?

Well, right after I got married, I got hit with the Boston disaster. All my hard work and my confidence was shattered. And then I started having issues in races, stopping every so often for stomach or leg issues. I still had some excellent performances in me, and one more BQ, but my superhero running was over, at least for now.

Basically, I literally ran myself into the ground, and it took me a few years to accept my body had basically rejected the intensity I’d put it through, albeit slowly and gently.

And so I may just not be that guy anymore.

So what am I now?

Well, the thing is? Those stats from 2019? THAT IS NOT BAD. I’m in the top 5% of NYC racers rather than top 2.5%? Okay! I’m at an average of 69% AG, rather than 70? Okay! I’d like to stay as close to 70 as I can, but the whole point of AG is that I am older now, and slowing down is expected. I’ve only slowed down by the slightest bit relative to my age. I’m 5 years older. It’s not a surprise.

What have I gained while I’ve lost some (objective) speed? A marriage that I didn’t have. A career that may actually take me to interesting places. And health.

I wasn’t physically unhealthy then, obviously. But I was doing a lot of damage to myself in some ways. And mentally? Emotionally? I was hanging by a thread.

I was so upset at myself for missing numerical goals, so upset because running felt like it was my whole world. My world is so much bigger now, and so much brighter. And it’s growing all the time. I’m so much closer to the person I need to be.

Does this mean I don’t care about running? Come on now. I love running. I love racing. I miss marathon training this summer, and I’ll return to the big distance in March of 2021. It will always be a part of me, and frankly, running carried me. It put me on its back and dragged me from the shiftless mid-20s person I was when I got serious about it to the actual adult I was when this superman period came to a halt in Boston.

I write this as if I’m done with it, and I never will be. In a way, I want to offer my gratitude to the sport of distance running for showing me what I was capable of, even if I wasn’t clear-eyed enough to see how well I was doing while I was doing it.

I may yet never reach those same speeds again. I probably won’t. But now, each race is such a joy, each strong mile as fun as it was when I first started marathon training seven years ago.

I never would have ended up where I am today if I hadn’t listened to a friend and signed up for that marathon on a whim when I watched those people pass my apartment while I was hungover and feeling sorry for myself in 2011.

On to the next race, then. I can’t wait.

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Justin Gerald

Age: 28 Hometown: NYC Location: NYC Career: Education Undergrad: Princeton Grad: New School Likes: Cooking, Baseball, Socializing, Parks, Pop Culture, Feminism Loves: Traveling, Running, Lifting, Trivia, Teaching, Equality