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Differences between running for fun and running as a job

Running & Fitness
Saturday, June 12, 2021

My viewing choice on television is watching almost any form of sports. The NCAA track meet was on this week and watching the best performances of athletes is always entertaining. I ran track in high school and college, so I can relate a little on how an athlete feels after running a race. This week there was also a professional track meet on television that had athletes running as an occupation. When I first started running a woman by the name of Francie Larue was living in Austin. She was one of the elite runners and was a professional runner. She gave a lecture at a convention I attended one year and the role of a professional runner is not as easy as it may seem.

Her comments regarding the difference between running for a university and a college scholarship versus running as a job was enlightening. Two things that I remember from her talk about running as a professional still stand out. One is running is now a job, not necessarily a sport in college or as a past time and entering local 5K race. Running is now the same as a job. You have a coach (equivalent to your job’s boss) that has the days workout planned. You need to run the day’s schedule whether you feel up to the task or not. A person that runs for “fun” can take a day off if they do not feel well or want to rest. A professional runner does not have that option. You run on good days and bad days since it now a job. The other point that stood out is that in order to get a sponsorship and get paid for your ability is that only runners that finish in the top three manage to keep their job. If you start to routinely begin to finish out of the top five in a race the sponsor starts to look at the runners that finished ahead of you. So whether you feel good or bad, you will put in that hard workout the coach has you scheduled for.

It was interesting watching the professional track meet as it brought the memory of having a “rabbit” in the race. A “rabbit” is a runner that is paid by one of the elite runners to set an early pace for half the race so that the runner has a good chance at running a fast time – or close to a record. I remember a student I had in class that was a track star for Texas State. Inez Turner ran for Texas State and was the NCAA 400 meter champion and is now in the Texas State Hall of Fame. After her college career she and her sister went overseas and became “rabbits” for many of the elite athletes. It was a nice way to earn a living and not have the pressure of having to finish in the top three runners in a race to keep earning money. They had the elite ability and knew how to run a pace that was so important. 

I was a rabbit for a friend who wanted to run a three hour marathon. He wanted me to have him run the first half of the marathon in 1:25 so he had a chance to make that three hour time limit. We ran the first half in 1:25 and he was on his own after that. I don’t remember him being able to keep that pace for the last 13 miles. The saying for marathon runners is that the halfway point is at 20 miles. Those last six miles will determine what your finish time will be if you are after a designated time.

One other observation that caught my attention was the post-race recovery of the runners. I remember gasping for air and bending over from tight muscles after a 440 yard dash. The NCAA runners showed a little discomfort after their races. The television only focused on the runners that finished first and second. What amazed me was watching the professional runners after their races. One woman running the 400-meter low hurdles finished and looked as if she had just walked around the block. No gasping, no tight muscles or grimace in the face. I could not imagine running that distance and not even having to breathe hard after the finish. The same scene took place for both the men and women 1500 meters. The lead finishers just smiled and were talking to the other runners as if they were at a social function of some sort. I did see one of the top finishers squat down and take a few deep breathes. But knowing how I felt after a maximum effort at a fast mile time I was very impressed.

I started to wonder what the difference is between an average runner trying to run fast versus a professional runner and the recovery after the race. The one thing that seemed obvious was the professional runners were very efficient runners and looked as if they were just skimming across the track. I assumed they are so efficient that the amount of effort was not wasted on unnecessary motions.

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