Not an Average Runner

Last summer, I was fussing about registering for a race or when I was going to plan my next run, and I was accused of making too big a deal out of running – that my friends and I like we are pro athletes or something. (Aheam.  We…may…be guilty of this.  Sometimes.)  My accuser said that my friends and I were “just average runners.”

Well, I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I say there is no such a thing as an average runner.  And looky, looky, I’m not alone:

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I have a fistful of graduate credits in applied statistics, so I know logically that there are averages in anything and everything.  But I’m not speaking in strictly mathematical terms.  But let’s get some basic definitions and statistics out of the way.

Average is a measure of central tendency and can be calculated mathematically in terms of mean, median, or mode.  More generically speaking, average refers to the middle or typical value among a set of data.  So let’s consider this description of average and look at some stats on people who exercise.

According to this source from 2008, only 16% of people (over age 15) in the U.S. participated in some sport or exercise on the average day. That’s about 50.25 million people.  Runners account for 7.1% of that 16% who exercise routinely, or about 3.5 million people – only 1.1% of the entire population of the U.S.

Sadly, these statistics indicate the average person doesn’t exercise at all.  Further, these numbers show that the average exerciser doesn’t run.  So right out of the gate, runners are decidedly not average.

But would we determine what represents the “average” runner from among the 3.5M?  Would we keep them all in one group, or break it down into subgroups based on age, gender, etc.?  And what is the actual measure we would use – speed or distance the runner is able to achieve?  Or would we have to look at speed at a specific distance?  And if so, which distance?  Could we simply say that “the average runner” runs X miles a week, regardless of pace?

For example, you could calculate the average time it takes for a marathoner to finish.  (Bonus statistic: Only .05% of people in the U.S. have completed a marathon.) That would point to some folks who represent the average marathoner.  You could do the same thing for every standard race that’s run on the track or the streets – overall average, plus averages by subgroups.  Considering all those possible measures, each runner would be likely be above average on some and below average on most.

In spite of the fact that the runners that I know are pretty anal about their running numbers (e.g., number of miles run each week, miles splits for each run, race PRs), I say those averages above have no meaning to runners.  Here are some anecdotes that help explain why I say there is no such thing as an average runner.

  • On the whole, we runners don’t compare ourselves to others.  Yes, yes, we may refer to someone as being faster or slower than we are, but only in a strictly fact-based way.  We focus on 1) what we have in common, a love of running, and 2) competing with ourselves, striving to improve in whatever way we each choose – which may be running faster, running further, or simply running more consistently.  There are no “averages” to calculate among our varied goals.
  • In February, I watched a large woman (by which I mean very tall, but also not particularly slender) celebrate her 50th birthday by running her first 5K.  Was her finish time above or below average?  Probably below, depending upon how you calculated it, but I don’t think there’s anything average about that.
  • I know women who, several times a week, tell their asthma to go screw itself and take off for their runs.  Not average behavior.
  • A very good runner friend of mine ran her first full marathon just six months after having her second child.  She was also still breastfeeding said, second daughter.  NOTE: But not during the race. 🙂 Overall, her time was below average for that race.  But if there were a category for female racers, in their 30, running their first marathon, six months after having a baby, she probably would have placed first.  Top 5 at worst.  Average, schmaverage.
  • This winter, my friends and I routinely met at 5AM in freezing weather to get our runs in.  Did we run faster or further than average?  I don’t know, but I do know that this behavior is considered out of the ordinary even among many runners.
  • We’ve all now heard the stories about the Boston marathoners who ran two additional miles, directly to the hospitals, to give blood after the bombings.  Granted, Boston marathoners are not average runners by anyone’s standards, and I don’t need to explain why.  But I know giving blood even on a day when I haven’t run wipes me OUT.  I can’t imagine recovering from 26.2 miles (or in many cases 25.5) down a pint of blood.  So NOT average.
  • Plodding along week after week knowing that you are a slower-than-most runner takes more guts than being able to keep up with a faster bunch.  The slower runner may be below average on pace or distance, but they’re above average on heart.  Not. Average.
  • The fastest runners I know are the ones most likely to offer encouragement to the newest and slowest among us.  I honestly can’t speak to the behavior of athletes in other sports, but I’m guessing that this is atypical in the fitness world in general.  Which is, again, decidedly not average.
  • Or how about the truth in this statement that has been circulating in the wake of the Boston bombing: “…marathon running is a sport of goodwill. It’s the only sport in the world where if a competitor falls, the others around will pick him or her up. It’s the only sport in the world open to absolutely everyone, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity or any other division you can think of. It’s the only occasion when thousands of people assemble, often in a major city like New York or London, for a reason that is totally peaceful, healthy and well-meaning. It’s the only sport in the world where no one ever boos anybody.” (Source.)  What’s average about that?
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Caption reads: “This Kenyan elite runner tries to pass her water to the dehydrated Chinese runner who she saw suffering. This delayed her for some time and instead of coming in first, she came in second, also losing $10,000 USD in prize money.”
Does anyone average give up $10K to help a fellow athlete?

Finally, I say runners are not average because  we do not care whether or not people think we’re average.  And we don’t care that most non-runners think we’re crazy.  In fact, we’re able to make fun of ourselves for our “addiction” to running and the quirks that go along with it as much as anyone else can.  Take for example, the popularity of “Runners, Yeah We’re Different,” a series of ads run by Addidas (warning: bare bum showing in the very first image).  It’s funny stuff and we know it.

We’ll make fun of our ugly feet (we’re kind of proud of them).  We do “extreme” things like sit in a tub full of ice water to recover (so that we can go run again).  Yes, we over-share (with each other) about running-related bodily function mishaps. And we run along, unconcerned with how average or bizarre other people think we are.

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