“Many of his records on this  tour were at odd distances 1 ¾ miles, 1 ⅞ miles, 2 ¼ miles – but there was one with which none quibbled – his 3:58.2 for two miles in a New York Athletics Club meeting at the old Madison Square Garden.” This is a small excerpt from the New York Times’ obituary for Paavo Nurmi from 1973. Reading this sentence should make people who know at least a little about running pause. Seriously, three fifty-eight for two miles? To run that time you would need reach and hold thirty miles an hour for the whole race. That’s the typical speed limit for a residential street.
For a more human frame of reference, Usain Bolt’s max speed was twenty-eight miles an hour, and that was obviously done during a sprint. It is difficult to picture people running a two mile race at a speed even greater than Bolt’s peak velocity. Somebody running at thirty miles an hour lapping the field again and again seems like some piece of Monty Python-esque absurdism.
Yet, somehow, this mistake was not spotted by the editors. But why? After all, the “New York Times” (and NHCC:)) is usually very pleased with their ability to snare any grammatical or typographical error. But this isn’t a a mere issue of misspelling, this inaccuracy is more absurd. This effectively trivializes the great step Nurmi took in challenging our conception of what was possible.
The only explanation for why an error like this could go overlooked must be basic ignorance. People were not as physically active at that point as they are now. Nurmi’s death came only at the beginning of the running boom. In 1973 there were no crowds of enthusiastic joggers with GPS watches strapped to their wrists carefully monitoring exactly how fast they were running. So there is no reason why it would have occurred to them to do a double take when they saw the number three at the beginning of Nurmi’s barrier shattering achievement. They would have no idea of what terminal velocity for runners competing in the two mile would have been.
The serious runner would have known better though. Certain performances are understood to be absolutely impossible. You will never run that fast, not matter how you train. Even in fiction some things are impossible. Quentin Cassidy’s Zatopekean 60×400 interval session was not enough for him to claim the gold medal.
Coaches know too. With decades of experience, observing runners fail again and again, they are experts on the impossible. They have learned how athletes progress. They know how likely it is to see runners with certain levels of talent. They know that some barriers are simply not breachable – unless a future Olympian shows up for the first day of practice in August.
By the end of this past August, nobody had posted a sub thirteen minute 5000m. Flotrack wrote up a little blurb about it, pointing out this would be the first time in eight years that a season would have passed without a sub 13:00 performance. (For those wondering, Nurmi’s best was 14:28.) Flotrack, being made up of real runners who know why certain things cannot be done was able to explain why this is. They put up a graph and then talked about how prize money was more readily available in the marathon. This had drawn away interest from racing on the track. So, of course, at the next Diamond League meet Selemon Barega, at 18 years old, drops a mean 12:43.
In New Hampshire it is rare to see runners breaking 16:00. When it does happen the runners and coaches alike first wonder if the course was actually the full distance. But here we have an eighteen year old – the same age as some of our New Hampshire seniors, running a 12:43. That makes him the fourth fastest man in history behind Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebrselassie, and Daniel Komen.
High School age runners performing at the highest level are not really that unique in our sport. Eliud Kipchoge won a 5000m world championship gold medal by out kicking the fastest 1500m/miler and 5000m/10000m runners of all time when he smoked El Guerrouj and Kenenisa Bekele in the final straight. Kipchoge was only eighteen. Jakob Ingebrigtsen is seventeen and he has won the European Championships in the 1500m and the 5000m and has run a best of 3:31 for the 1500m. It is ironic that, when you consider young runners repeatedly do what is supposedly impossible, we don’t start to question whether our notions of terminal velocity might be wrong.
Part of the problem is that the impressive performances won’t happen often enough for us to see them as normal. Logically, they cannot. If they did, they wouldn’t be impressive any more; they would just be average. But I also wonder if part of our reluctance to question the limits we accept is because we are afraid of being judged ignorant or naive by other runners or coaches.
When you talk big and fall short, that makes you stand out; it shows you’re not a part of the “in-crowd”. Everybody has stepped to the line at least once and wondered if something special would happen for them. Nobody wants to stand on the line and say, “I’m going to run 4:15 in the 1600m today”, only to then come across the line in 4:45 after opening up in a sixty-one. That would only show that you are not in-the-know, so you must not belong to the world of hardcore runners.
The desire to conform and fit in is so strong that it holds us back from our true ambitions. The mark of an experienced runner is they know their limitations. They know just how fast they can set out at when the gun goes off. They know how hard they can run up the hills. They know how long they need to wait until they wind up their final sprint. The best runners are often the pragmatists, not the dreamers. The dreamers usually end up eating the course or the track. If you race and you forget to follow these limitations, then it seems inevitable that your race will be relegated to the scrap heap of misfires and outsized ambitions.
So we don’t go to the line and call out a time we’d love to run; we don’t flaunt our ambition. I learned to be as humble as possible. Even now, when I race, if somebody asks me what I am hoping to do, I know better than to talk about it. I deflect, and say that I’m just hoping to not get a cramp. Maybe I’m feeling clever, and I just take myself out of the discussion completely and talk about how the “good” people in the race train so hard; how what they do is so far beyond my puny efforts.
I don’t talk about how I am pretty sure six minute pace is a breeze. I certainly don’t mention that I’m really more concerned about the fact that I eat so much candy that my waistline is going to be my anchor rather than my legs and lungs. I don’t announce that this is the only thing holding me back from being a distance god.
In that way I show that I am a real runner – I know what is impossible. I admit willingly, even eagerly, to my own mediocrity. Tamp down your ambition, show that you belong. Be like everybody else and always avoid the risk of embarrassing yourself.
The problem with being like everybody else is that it only makes you average. And if you are average then you are doing average things. Average is boring. Push for more in running and in life. Change your notion of what terminal velocity means for a New Hampshire runner, be it in cross-country or track. Ask yourself: can a pragmatist dream? Can our dreams be pragmatism?
It would mean taking a risk. It means that you’ll probably be wrong most of the time. At worst, when you fail, you’ll end up being average, which is where you would have been anyway. People talk about the concept of the glass ceiling in the workplace. TRIBE thinks there are glass ceilings or barriers in New Hampshire running: courses that are un-tamable, conditions that are unraceable, and times that are unachievable. These barriers demarcate New Hampshire’s terminal velocity.
TRIBE tries to find those glass barriers. We try to understand why those are the benchmarks for the impossible. Then we focus on getting to the other side of the glass. The only pragmatic approach for us is to focus on actualizing our dreams.
When I was running for Concord High School our top runner was Nat Nelson. Nat and I used to play in a clarinet trio at the local music school. Even when we were doing that, people wanted to know if Nat was a runner. This was because the first thing people notice about Nat is his chicken legs. He has long thin legs and for a lot of people that fits their stereotype of a runner. I think Nat is just physically incapable of putting on muscle mass. He’s the only person I know who is still the same size now as he was in high school. But when he ran, his chicken legs ate up ground in huge bounding strides that sort of criss-crossed his feet over his meridian as he moved.
Coach Cofrin once tried to get Nat to clean up his stride, maybe be a little more efficient, by having Nat run along the sideline of the basketball court. Nat would run, left foot landing to the right of the line, right foot landing to the left of the line. Nat’s stride did not change.
The other weird thing about Nat’s legs were the huge thick scars on them. They were bulbous and ropy, like fat banana slugs wriggling under his skin. When he was little he was running inside his house, down the hall and through the door; literally through the glass door at the end of the hall. The door had just been cleaned so the glass was so clear that it looked like the door was wide open, inviting the mad dash to the other side. The broken glass tore at his legs on his way through.
It’s impressive the barriers that we can break when we don’t think there’s a barrier there. Nat achieved the velocity needed to smash down that barrier because he did not think there was one. He had no knowledge of his limitations. Maybe it’s no surprise that the guy who could run through an actual glass barrier was the best runner team.
The effort to move through a barrier may be more psychological than physical. I suspect there are many runners who have the inherent ability to perform at a much, much higher level than they do. But, without the understanding that the barriers constraining them are only a construct, they may never reach their true ceiling.
TRIBE doesn’t believe in barriers at all anymore. Eighteen minutes isn’t a barrier. Seventeen minutes isn’t a barrier. Sixteen minutes isn’t a barrier. Fifteen minutes isn’t a barrier. People set these barriers when they gravitate to the mean. We limit ourselves when we decide to constrain our ambition and fit in. We make certain things impossible when we settle for being average.
The only way that you can have any chance of moving through the barrier is if you no longer think it is there. As long as there is even a hint of doubt in our minds, the slightest suspicion that there is a thick pane of glass waiting in front of us, we will hold back. So TRIBE works to purge ourselves of those doubts as we work towards our version of enlightenment.
Even then, moving through these barriers isn’t easy, and it can sometimes feel like they are trying to take a little piece of you with them. In the 1960s Ron Clarke brought the 5000m world record down from 13:35 to 13:16. After his racing career, he described a terrible emptiness that filled him whenever he crossed the finish line after setting a world record. For Clarke, life’s spark spiraled down the the drain as the clock stopped. There is something sad about breaking down a barrier for good.
Is that another reason why Quentin Cassidy does not win, no matter how pure a runner he becomes? After all, no matter how extreme the sacrifices Cassidy makes, it never seems appropriate for him to win. Taking home the ultimate prize, an Olympic gold medal seems cheap. It seems impossible.
Impossibility thrills us. That’s why, if one athlete does break through, it doesn’t serve as proof that the barrier does not exist. Instead, we find a way to make that into an excuse: he did, so I can’t!
If we see one guy throw down a monster performance, we take that as proof that you need miraculous talent to achieve at that level. In that moment we should finally see that the impossible is possible. That’s the moment when our assumptions about what terminal velocity is should change. Instead, we seize on that moment and twist it around in our minds until, somehow, it is more clear than ever before that there is a barrier there.
There’s also a poignant nostalgia at the beginning of Quentin Cassidy’s story that speaks to the way we romanticize the impossible dream. The book begins with Cassidy feeling sorry for himself that it is all over. He is sorry he lost, but oddly savoring that sorrow. The fact that the ultimate achievement is impossible makes each of us a tragic hero. Our failure makes all of us an Achilles in our own story.
TRIBE has heard a lot of don’ts. There has a been surprising amount of effort to stake down the limitations for what are acceptable aspirations. Don’t do that workout, don’t do that warm-up, don’t run in those meets, don’t race that way, don’t do that much or that little training, don’t think you can beat those guys or that team. Sometimes we don’t, but more often we find a way.
We are the TRIBE because we do not want to be just Concord guys anymore. Concord guys race this way, they run these times, they are always behind those teams. Concord guys were a fixed point in the universe, they weren’t changing. Concord guys knew what was impossible.
My brother once raced in a criterium where the other riders started yelling, screaming, swearing at him to stay where he was whenever he tried to move up towards the front of the race. The riders knew what the order was, they knew where people were supposed to be. They did not want to have the improvement of another threaten their position in the petty pecking order.
They could have moved up together and toppled the established order. They could have shown that the way things were done was only a way. Of course they didn’t, that would have been a risk that would have made people stand out and then they would be in danger of no longer being average.
As an athlete, building yourself up towards a big moment, only to have it roll over and die, is crushing. I love cross-country more now then I did when I raced as an athlete. Running down hill was always a frustration and left me feeling more irritated than fulfilled when I finished. Track was where it was at. So, freshman year in college, when we went to MIT for our first track meet, I was excited. I ran the first lap in a happy sixty-three seconds and finished with a lackluster 4:58. The same time I ran when I raced the mile for the first time as a high school runner. The next day I ran thirteen miles by myself and suffered an ugly emotional breakdown for almost the entire run.
It takes a gambler’s heart to push for your dreams. Failures are a part of the process. You’ve filled up your balloon all season long bringing your biggest dreams with you. When you come crashing back down it is very difficult to remind yourself that you can start over, fill the balloon back up and try again. When we turn around something that seems like complete failure into an absolute success, our hearts feel like they are made of gold. By the spring of that same year I was running almost twenty-seconds faster than I had run in my best race my senior season in high school.
We all become older and slower eventually. In the space in between, a decision has to be made. How fast is fast? How possible is impossible? Do we dare to dream, and are we willing to work for that dream? Cerutty, the master of pain, thought about the impossible too, “Hard things take time to do, the impossible takes a little longer.”
As the four minute mile barrier crept closer and closer the naysaying grew louder. The barrier was impossible. Running that fast would kill a man. The human heart simply cannot bear the load. 4:00 for four laps of 440 yards was too aesthetically balanced to be breakable. How could such a perfect impossibility be possible? The same prophecies of death and physical limitation were repeated in the 1920s before Nurmi posted his 8:58.2 in New York City.
Nobody tells runners to not try to run sub-five minute pace in a race because it will kill them anymore. But don’t think that this rhetoric of death and destruction has faded with time, it is has merely been transplanted. Now, people tell dark tales about the level of training that will be needed to even begin to reach for the barriers that we have carefully erected and curated. Always present is a menacing implication. The kind of training that would take someone with no running talent to the cusp of excellence is a deal with the devil. Sooner or later you will pay the price. We know that you will have bad knees in the future. Endless injuries are the only possible outcome. It isn’t good for you do do this. It must be bad for you to try the impossible. Why else would it be impossible?
But the research shows that greater level of joint use leads to greater joint health in the future. Movement is good for you! Do more of it! That’s how you challenge our notions of terminal velocity, by defying the limitations imposed by those around you and seeking the truth over the consensus.
In ancient works of fiction, victory is not impossible. The notion of a tragic Achilles, slain at his peak, is a later invention. In the “Iliad”, Achilles does not die. He does not come face to face with an inner weakness. Achilles returns to the field of battle when his dear friend Patroclus is killed. On fire with rage, he slaughters Trojans by the score and finally kills Hector to avenge the death of Patroclus. Homer imagined no barriers for Achilles. For Achilles, this moment of tragic glory is made possible because of the great suffering that precipitated it. In his moment of triumph, Achilles was indomitable.
For the reality is that our barriers, even the most imposing, are always transient. TRIBE knows this to be true. I don’t know for certain what terminal velocity is in New Hampshire running, but I do suspect it’s faster than we think and I do know what needs to be done if we want to find out.
We have our goals for each race, for the whole season, for the whole year, and for years to come. The TRIBE are dreamers, but we begin at step one. No more excuses. Let go of the notion of impossibility. Understand that the barriers are not real. If that does not work, sometimes you just need to close your eyes and run.
Running is a freeing feeling, it makes you feel limitless. At least until you run head first into a brick wall. A wall that’s holding you back from achieving the ultimate goal: terminal velocity. Perfect, sweet, self satisfaction, knowing you are the ultimate version of yourself. But the brick wall, seemingly indestructible and impassable is always keeping you back. So, how do you get to the otherside? You could give up. That won’t work, but its a common option. You could slam the wall every day, over and over, but you will end up worse than the wall. People call me Big T, I’m a sophomore from CHS, and this is my take on terminal velocity.
My first high school cross country season, was, obviously, the 2017 season. I came in feeling small, insignificant, pretty much what every freshman feels. Our first race of the season last year was the Cofrin Classic, and I ran a 21:35. Soon after that I found my wall for the season. Twenty minutes was impossible; the impassable time. I went back again and again, race after race, training everyday, but I only ended up with a 20:39 as my personal best.
Yet I didn’t give up. From the end of last season to the beginning of this year, I took every single step I could to take down that darn wall. Last week my efforts were rewarded when I ran in my second Cofrin Classic. I ran 19:42, smashing my personal record, and my terminal velocity barrier. I thought I would be finally satisfied, but it was not enough. I felt the same as last year, the only difference is that I ran two minutes faster, hungry for more. Why wasn’t I satisfied, just happy to be under 20:00?
Because I could be under 19:00 now. Terminal velocity isn’t ever set, that’s what I’ve learned. Even world record holding Olympians are hungry for more, how else would they have reached that level? The big goal is always held above your head. You chase it like chasing your shadow. You will never catch it, but as you chase it you get faster and faster and faster, breaking down barriers, brick by brick.
In May of my junior year in high school, my team decided that we wanted to race against some of the best runners in the country. We tried to get some athletes accepted into Loucks Games. Loucks Games is known for being very competitive and a lot of runners have come away from that meet with a big result to show for their efforts. I was one of the few guys that were accepted into the track meet. I was very excited that my entry was accepted. I thought that if I executed the race perfectly, then I would be able to shave two or three more seconds off of my personal best of 4:25 in the 1600.
During race week I did a normal week of training. I didn’t approach the week leading up to the race any differently than I would for one of our other New Hampshire invitationals. But I knew, because of the number of great runners at the meet, it would be a different racing experience. Two days before I left to race, Coach Bling and I set a goal for the meet and devised a strategy that could set me up to reach that goal. He told me he had no doubt that if I ran a perfect race I would run 4:20 or even under 4:20. In my mind 4:20 was a huge barrier. I had only just started running under 4:30 in the 1600. I thought Bling was crazy at the time. The race was a full mile, another nine meters further than the 1600. There was no way I was going to take seven or eight seconds off of my personal best.
So I wasn’t convinced that it was possible for me to run that fast. But our strategy made sense. Bling explained that it was going to feel fast, almost like running an 800. If I made too many moves then my race would be over. I needed to run a simple race. I had to get in a good position and hold it for as long as possible, then leave it all on the track the last 400m.
On race day, when I got to the track, I did my normal warm-up routine, just like at any other meet. I just tried to forget how big of a race this was. As I finally got onto the track, I focused on imagining that it was a Tuesday meet after school at our home track and that all of my teammates were lined up next to me.
The gun went off, I cleared everything out of my head, just repeating a mantra the whole race so I would stay calm, relaxed and not even hear the splits we hit each lap. Before I knew it we were on the last lap. Now I was trying to catch every man in front of me. I came even with Joe Pearl who had won the Manchester Invitational that past fall, but I ended up 0.01 seconds shy of winning the race. I looked at the board displaying my results. Next to my name it read, 4:19.48. I couldn’t believe it.
I was wrong, I could run under 4:20. The barrier was only an illusion. If I had looked at the clock at all during the race, I would have thought I was going too fast. I know I would have slowed down out of the fear that if I had kept going I would’ve blown up. We are all faster than we think. The reason why is because we keep telling ourselves that it isn’t possible to do it. That’s what stops us from reaching that level.
New Hampshire has barriers. Apparently it isn’t possible to run under 15 minutes for a 5k. Almost nobody runs under 4:15 in the 1600. But what is so significant about those numbers? What makes them so hard for people to reach? People think that numbers like those are real barriers, but in reality they are just like any other number.
A big part of what makes being a part of TRIBE special is that we try to forget about barriers. We are still Concord, but we are also more than that now. When we put on our trainers and get together as a team, we become the TRIBE. We believe that we can accomplish anything. Barriers are only as real as we imagine them to be.
I am a Goldfish.
My journey started in a little stream, aware of my direction but unaware of my destination. A product of the surrounding environment, I grow only as big as that environment allows. If I am stuck swimming in circles around a normal fishbowl every day, I will be average in size. However, if you change my environment, and give me ample room to explore, I will thrive and grow. As a runner at Concord High School I have moved beyond what I used to think my limitations would be. TRIBE has allowed me to move from my small stream and into a mighty river.
How can someone run under fifteen minutes in High School cross-country? Most people quickly jump to a easy answer: “You live in a big State where the competition is insane, therefore making the fast guys faster.” Or you have to be a future Olympian, or you have to be one of the great Kenyans or Ethiopians, or something else that you are fundamentally not. If you look closely, you see that these “answers” aren’t answers at all. They are excuses for why most people never do, sign posts at the edge of the fishbowl, constraining the capable.
Breaking seventeen minutes used to be a massive accomplishment. The first time I achieved this milestone is still perfectly etched in my memory: the Hopkinton Homecoming Invitational, my freshman year. Dom Repucci dominated the race (no pun intended) gun to tape and won in 16:02. My race, however, was much more strategic. I give credit to then Senior Dane Seppala from Conant. I have never met Dane outside of that race, but he served this one up for me. I focused on remaining latched on to him until the last 200 meters. I held close and I crossed the finish line absolutely gassed in 16:55. Only few times have I ever been completely happy with a race result. I felt unstoppable, even though I was almost a minute behind the winner!
This a prime example of a being the little fish in a little stream. Now, being a senior I would be angry if I came to the finish line in 16:55. I understand the argument cross-country times are relatively unimportant because you can’t really compare one course to another. But in the grand scheme of things, times do matter. Great times can be beacons of hope while bad times can be crushing. It’s a little odd that numbers on a clock can be the difference between happiness and anger.
After breaking seventeen minutes was accomplished, I set out to make my next conquest; breaking sixteen. It took a Sophomore season full of “just misses” to realize this goal was going to be much harder than breaking seventeen minutes. At the Meet of Champions I was able to post a 16:06 and I felt like a king. Breaking sixteen was something that would happen in its own time. I knew, come junior year, I would move to another level.
The key difference between myself then and now is my ability to see the bigger picture. As a freshman I knew all the stats on every team. I kept folders with papers comparing my results to the New Hampshire runners of the past. I foolishly thought that year that we had a shot at taking down an amazing Pinkerton team. Now I know that, truthfully, our team just wasn’t that good. I was struggling to see the future. Fortunately around this time, rather than be disappointed with the season, I instead moved from my small stream and into the river. Since then I have ridden its Piscataqua-like current toward the promised land.
As a result I learned to move my focus in training towards new benchmarks for success and improvement. The concentration I put into my running now has increased tenfold when compared to my freshman self. I no longer recognize limits, there are too many examples of people destroying them: Eliud Kipchoge breaks the Marathon World Record in 2:01:39; Barega runs 12:43 as an 18-year-old; Forest MacKenzie runs 6:08 for the Rootbeer Mile. All three equally impressive feats of running excellence! Limits can weaken us. Limits can make us into people who find excuses for why they cannot to do something.
I have run in two invitationals so far this season year, and was fortunate to feel strong enough in both races to post a new meet record in each. This did not happen because I am somehow “better” than the guys who held them before me. The key is the approach. I see a time, decide it is doable and go do it. Running is simple. All you have to do is not fall into the trap of disbelief; always think that you can go faster. Cultivating the right mentality has been the key. I don’t live in the Rift Valley and train with the best of the best. I am a New Hampshire boy, born and raised, and like many of us, I am proud of that fact. My Dad is a runner, my mom is a great athlete. They’re not Olympians, I don’t have that special genetic code. I’m only me. I am aiming to end this season with a bang. As for how fast? We’ll just have to wait and see.
One thought on “Concord XC Team Blog: Terminal Velocity”
This is golden! Love the story of your teammate running through the glass. I did the same as a 5 year old and have a little scar in my cheek as a souvenir. Thanks for posting!