Is the younger generation failing to keep up? No, I don’t mean in school. The woes of the education system are well-documented. Wall Street Journal reporter Kevin Helliker claims, in a column that redounds as something of a humble brag on his performance as a triathlete, “That they’re just not very fast.” Here’s his braggadocio to start the column:
Saying I finished in the top 15% of my age group in last month’s Chicago Triathlon is like bragging that I could outrun your grandpa. My age group was 50 to 54.
But against the entire sprint-distance field, I finished in the top 11%. That’s right: Team Geriatric outperformed the field.
I’d love to report that this reflects the age-defying effects of triathlon. But my hair is gray, my hearing is dull and my per-mile pace is slower than it used to be, even at shorter distances.
Rather, this old-timer triumph is attributable to something that fogies throughout the ages have lamented: kids these days.
He should be so proud! He beat the kids! Or, at least most of them.
Then he launches into a lament at what this says for the younger generation, and spouts a litany of disputable statistics about marathon, half-marathon and triathlon races to prove that times have gotten slower in the younger generation. He wails at how poorly US athletes have done in the Olympic marathon over the last decade or so.
His statistics fail because he fails to account for the vast growth in the number of participants in endurance events. Increase the field, particularly with non-athletes who are not really racing but are just joining the fun to get some exercise, and the times will inevitably decrease. And it is not remarkable that old guys who are serious about competing, worrying every moment of a race about how well they will fare against the guys they want to beat (invariably some asshole at work, or who they met in other races), and who are necessarily more likely to have had some athletic talent (nature breeds nurture), beat younger people who were never talented athletes, and who race for fun and exercise and perhaps to test the limits of their physical endurance.
But this is serious stuff, again, from the article:
Some observers see larger and scarier implications in the declining competitiveness of young endurance athletes. “This is emblematic of the state of America’s competitiveness, and should be of concern to us all,” Toni Reavis, a veteran running commentator, wrote in a blog post this week entitled “Dumbing Down, Slowing Down.”
Well, maybe not. It might just represent kids who have grown up, where the adults haven’t. Endurance events like marathons, half-marathons and triathlons, are not, except for a very few talented souls, races that the average athlete has any chance of winning. It takes profound dedication combined with preternatural talent to even have a chance at the podium. In the major races, the victors are almost always full-time, and often, state or corporate-funded athletes. Everyone else races against themselves. Their victories come with getting off the couch and pushing to the finish line. They know they haven’t a remote chance of winning overall, but compete with the one foe everyone has in common–the demons of the soul that inhibit achieving to one’s potential–and with no more glory in mind at the end than that they can look themselves proud in the mirror with the satisfaction that they gave it their all.
Mr. Hellikor has identified a latent weakness in American society, but roughly the exact opposite of the one he intended. It is not the lack of competition, but the wrong focus of competition, that rots at the core of American society. People who believe nothing matters except winning against others are incapable of becoming psychically mature adults.
The only competition that matters, the only person anyone is charged with beating, is one’s self. It is not the field at a triathlon. It is not some foreign whiz kid at math, or some coworker at a company. All anyone can ever do is the best of which they are capable. Wherever that stacks up against the rest of the world is far less important than that it represents one’s best effort. Every person has a duty to present to the world the very best version of themselves that is possible. And that’s all. People aren’t necessarily slackers when they don’t measure up. And the same is true of organizations of individuals as is true of individuals. A nation can be no better than the individuals comprising it.
The utter repugnancy of measuring the value of one’s life by how its attributes stack up against others is completely lost on Mr. Hellikor, and sadly enough, on most of American society these days. The inability for people to see themselves as anything more than a reflection in other’s eyes yields all sorts of nefarious social conditions, everything from idiots waiting in line to be the first to buy a mass-produced phone so that they might be first among the cult of people who believe they are what they text and snap-chat through, to a young woman embarrassing herself and her family, and the families of countless others who saw her, just to get the attention she craves from others. Whether it’s iPhones or Miley Cyrus, there is an emptiness at the core of the American soul, because somewhere along the way, Americans quit reaching inside themselves to present society with the best individual they could become, preferring instead to measure their lives through the lives of others, doing anything they could to avoid wrestling with the demons in their soul. Afraid they won’t measure up, they seek approval from others so they won’t have to seek it from themselves.
I’ve run a few half-marathons, and one full marathon. But I never, not even in my prime, could have competed for the podium. I competed, and still do, against myself, not even necessarily the clock. My best race wasn’t my best time. It was a race for which I had trained extra hard, but the weekend of the race, I came down with a cold. To make matters worse, the sky started spritzing snow the day before the race, and by the gun the next morning, the cold front behind it had dropped temperatures into the teens, with a biting north wind. But I ran that race. My time stunk, even for me. But I finished it. I took the measure of myself that day, and came out a winner. That was a victory that no faster, stronger, younger or more talented person will ever take away from me; the only type that ever ultimately matters.