Monday, May 18, 2009

Relative Speed

Relative Speed: You won’t generally find me using those two words in such close proximity. I have plenty of relatives but not plenty of speed. Most of my relatives aren’t particularly speedy either, though some of my relatives have done speedy things. My Uncle Brendan has a Black Belt in Karate. That takes speed. The fact that he only got around to taking the sport up when he was in his forties, however, does speak of slowness and patience. My kids have shown some speed. My daughter can swim like a fish, my sons can run quickly and with agility when they want to…though everyone credits my wife’s side of the family for that. Carroll’s, though skilled in many regards, are not known for their speed.

In my case I have always believed that I am not a fast fellow. On several occasions I have tried with all of my might to be speedy. I had a boxing career that lasted for three months. For two months, thirty days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes, and forty-five seconds of that time I trained like crazy. I even used this thing called a speed bag. The other fifteen seconds of my boxing career were spent having my sense of smell permanently adjusted by a kid from Brookpark in a box-off for a spot in the Cleveland Golden Gloves Championship. This lack of smell came in handy in my next sport, wrestling, since this activity involved me spending an entire winter lying on my back with one shoulder struggling mightily for any sign of vertical and my face stuffed into too many armpits to recall. “Well”, you might say, “maybe those kids were super speedy and you were merely fast”. Thank you for allowing me to imagine you saying that, but I don’t think this is true either, because the kid that beat me to get into the Golden Gloves was beaten unmercifully about the ring by a kid from Shaker Heights in the first round of that tournament…and then that kid went on to lose his next match. I will add for the record that none of the guys that beat me in wrestling ever went to the Olympics.

Running was a bit kinder to me but even in that regard I was limited. My college coach once told my girlfriend “If you threw Mark out of a window he would drop at five minutes-per-mile; its his maximum speed”. I never married that woman. There were reasons other than speed involved and I don’t want to talk about it. Its too painful… even for me, and generally I handle pain really well. If you have a bit more endurance, and are still reading, I will tell you why I handle pain well two paragraphs from now.

They say that certain things, such as speed and intellect and eye color, and the ability to block a left hook, are genetic and I don’t doubt it. I watch Kenyan runners and I am in awe. They train so hard and achieve such sustained speed that I can barely recognize what they are doing, and what I have done, as belonging to the same sport.

If Kenyans gained their genetic gift for hard training, or natural speed, or the ability to train hard enough (without breakdown) to become fast, by living on the plains of Africa, then what gifts did God give to the Carroll clan? We are Irish and we have been Irish for a long long time. No one knows how long for sure. We are looking into it but research such as this takes time, and we don’t generally rush things. One thing for certain is that we have been Irish at least since the times of the potato famine. Since I’m typing this, at least one Carroll must have survived that horrendous period of history. To do so my ancestor had, I imagine, the ability to store body fat and endure misery. I don’t mean to brag but these are two things that I do exceedingly well. I have used them to moderate effect in ultramarathons for several years now. This is why I don’t feel sorry for myself. The Lord has given me many gifts; but speed isn’t one of them…or is it?

After all, how does one define what it is to be speedy? Are you speedy if you beat other people? I am old enough to remember the very first Cleveland Marathon (at least the first year that they moved it downtown from the old Hudson-Cleveland course). I was 13 years old and my Dad was running it. He had started jogging six months earlier and it was his first marathon. I actually managed, with the sort of nothing-to-lose-ballsy-ness that only 13-year-old boys and death row inmates can muster, to walk right through a VIP luncheon being hosted by Cleveland Mayor Dennis Kucinich on the upper floor of one of the buildings at Cleveland State University, and out onto an adjoining patio overlooking the finish line. To avoid further detection I climbed onto a ledge, crawled around the corner of the building and sat, several stories above street level, and watched Tom Fleming storm to the finish line ahead of the (then) unimaginably large field of 1200 runners in a time of 2:15. Surely this man was the embodiment of speed. I waited several minutes for my father and began to be concerned when an entire half-hour went by and he had not arrived. As the three hour mark came and went my Mom began to check the medical tents and registered her concern with race officials. I breathed a mighty sigh of relief to see my three-pack-per-day father roll in just over three hours and thirty minutes. Was Tom Fleming fast? He sure looked it. But the truth is that if he were racing Haile Gebrselassie during his world record run he would have finished nearly two and one-half miles behind him. So have runners gotten faster? It seems that they have but the winner of the 2009 Cleveland marathon defeated over 3000 runners in a time of 2:27. This would have been, in turn, over two miles behind Tom Fleming if they had raced each other on that spring day in 1978. My poor old slow father’s time seems to me now, many years and many pounds later, to be spectacularly fast. I look back on the fact that a newbie jogger who smoked like a chimney ran a time that would have nearly qualified him for the Boston Marathon if he ran it today. This is now a goal that I aspire to. And, yes, when I think about a 3:30 marathon it does indeed seem speedy.

So, as we have learned, those that appear fast might actually be slow and those that are slow might truly be fast. Even the bible says that the last shall be first. Next time I’m walking up a hill and you jog past me, slowly but inexorably inching ahead, just give me a quick little wave and move on past. Don’t mention the differences in our relative speed…because no matter how you assess the situation someone will think you are wrong.


  1. I too am amazed at what defines fast for us all, but am impressed more with heart. So when we get a chance lets pull up a park bench and sit and watch the race go by for a while. We can enjoy watching others reaching their fast and admire those with the heart to do it. I know I sure did. Great post!

  2. "the ability to store body fat and endure misery". Mark, I think we're related.

  3. Speed is relative. A 100 year old set the world record for the 100 m dash in around 40 seconds.
    I told my athletes about this feat and they thought that was not fast. I told them to think ahead 87 years as to what they may be doing. I told them the majority of you will be dead so the only speed you achieved was to death and the rest most likely unable to slowly walk 100 meters.

  4. Rob
    Yep its all about who we are and how we play trhe hand we are dealt.

    ...and don't forget our love of beer! You better not date my sister : ).

    If I make it to 100 I'm going to blow that guys record to kingdom come!!!!
    My actual plan is to die at the age of 92 at the hands of a jealous husband!

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