You Can't (Always) Judge a Runner By His Shorts

Ah, running. Such a sage instructor it is. Running is the Obi-Wan Kenobi of my highly reflective, spandex-clad life. Running instructs me. It grows my confidence and fells my pride. It keeps me humble. It teaches me patience. It reveals my weaknesses. It builds my strength. It illustrates valuable truths in very tangible (and, to the great detriment of my ego, often humorous) ways. And though I keep trying to graduate to a Jedi Knight in this galactic empire of miles, I can’t quite shake my Padawanian status. Instead of upholding bigger and bigger truths with metaphorical telekinesis, I find myself unable to buoy even the smallest bits of wisdom.

Recently, the sport had to remind me—yet again—never to assume.

I have a theory about running shorts and the people in them. Namely, the length of a guy’s shorts and his running ability are directly related. The shorter the shorts, the faster the guy. (As my gender specific references would imply, this theory pertains primarily to male runners.) Obviously, as it is with all generalizations and stereotypes, there are exceptions. However, I find the shorts theory to be accurate 99% of the time. If a guy is sporting a pair of split shorts with a two-inch inseam, you can pretty much bet your weight in GU that he’s a stud at some distance. Conversely, if a guy shows up to race in nine-inch basketball shorts more suited to Lebron James than Meb Keflezighi, he probably won’t be breaking any records.

The shorts theory is both reliable and useful. Case in point: A certain illogically competitive runner once sabotaged her own long run by making the ill-advised decision to pace herself against a trio of skinny guys in split shorts, even though they were running sixty seconds per mile faster than her marathon race pace. Ten miles into her eighteen-mile run, the short-shorted posse peeled off; subsequently, she hit the wall at mile fourteen. She then had to suffer through a painful death march of a final four miles, at which point a certain Mr. Speedy Pants (who joined her at mile twelve) ordered her to run up and down the Grand Basin hill in Forest Park as some form of penance. She (I’m not naming names) has since been banned from pacing herself against skinny guys in split shorts, at least during long training runs.

Yes, the shorts theory is a pretty solid method of discerning whether or not the guy next to you is a stud runner or a Joey Bagadonuts. Still, as Obi-Wan Kenobi wisely said (really, did Obi-Wan ever say anything that wasn’t wise?), “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.”

A few days ago, I was out for a run, minding my own business and trying to guess whether or not I’d have to stop at the upcoming intersection or have the good fortune of catching a crossing signal, when I spotted something just across the road. Another runner. He was wearing a visor, a white shirt, and long black shorts. We ran stride for stride for five seconds, just long enough for me to indulge in a litany of shorts-theory assumptions, the most prominent of which being that I could outrun this guy. Having made my conclusion, I returned to my game of intersection craps.

Then he passed me.

Umm… What…? I thought as his monochromatic figure pulled ahead. His shorts weren’t basketball worthy, but they were long. I was irked. This was a personal affront. It wasn’t like I was crawling down the road. I had been moving along at a good clip. I was, as they say, cruising. And this dude in shorts—shorts that were one tropical flower shy of a surfboard, mind you—had zipped by me without so much as a passing glance. (Literally.)

He probably sped up just to pass me, I reasoned as I picked up my pace. He won’t be able to hold this pace. My ego had been piqued. I would catch this guy. I would pass this guy. And then I would leave this guy in my dust. Surely I was a better runner than Mr. Long Shorts. Surely Mr. Long Shorts wasn’t a stud.

If only I had heard Obi-Wan screaming at me, “You intergalactic blockhead! Have you learned nothing?”

I caught Mr. Long Shorts at the intersection, primarily because he had to stop or else risk being steamrolled by oncoming traffic. We exchanged an awkward, silent nod, not unlike the moment when you first step into a crowded elevator. After a few seconds, the light changed, and we continued on our way.

Our way being the operative term. You see, I was determined not to let Mr. Long Shorts outrun me. At least not without a fight. (Yes, I know. I was that guy. It was not my proudest moment.) So I ran with him, step for step, albeit on the other side of the road.

I know. I know.

After a few minutes, Mr. Long Shorts, showing infinitely more grace than I was in the situation, acknowledged my presence by diplomatically crossing the road and complimenting my pace. I reciprocated the commendation (not, of course, without trying to disguise how uncomfortable I was running said pace), and then launched an inquisition into the running history of my new companion. He hemmed and hawed a bit (out of humility), but with persistence, I was finally able to get some solid answers.

And as it turned out, contrary to what his shorts would suggest, he was an accomplished runner. A very accomplished runner.

He had just returned from Arkansas, where he had placed second overall in a one-hundred-mile race. He preferred ultra distances and usually didn’t bother with anything shorter than fifty miles. He had run thirty-something “regular” marathons, though he couldn’t remember the exact number. He ran them as training runs for his ultras and generally crossed the finish line in under two hours, forty minutes. He averaged one hundred miles a week. Unless he was training. Then he averaged more. (I was now asking point-blank specifics. Etiquette, at that juncture, was a moot point. I had already established myself as a tactless person.)

“So what about you? Have you ever run an ultra?” he asked during a lacuna in my rapid fire questioning. It was his turn for close-range fire.

 “Uh… no. I mean, I haven’t yet. Just marathons. But you know. One day.” Suddenly, I felt inferior.

His questions continued. “How many marathons have you run?”

Eleven. I had run eleven. He responded with polite admiration, but the disinterested look in his eyes said, “Oh… that’s cute.”

“What’s your best time?” he asked after the patronizing moment had passed.

I told him. Again he responded politely, but his face clearly publicized his true thoughts.

“Well, you know,” he said, trying to encourage me lest I felt embarrassed about my marathon time, which I hadn’t until that point, “you’re young. You still have time to improve.”

Several miles later, we parted ways, he as an elite runner in board shorts and I as a runner in solid possession of a “cute” marathon history. 

Well played, Mr. Long Shorts, well played.

“Never assume” is about as clichéd as lessons get. Yet I, being the remedial Jedi student that I am, have to repeatedly learn even the most basic of platitudes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel rather sheepish during the last miles of my run, though the humorous irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me, and I laughed even as I dragged my pride limply behind me. Even the shorts theory has its limits. We can guess. We can deduce. We can conjecture. But we should never, ever assume. Appearances can be deceiving.

The silver lining in this little parable, however, lies in its reciprocity. Not assuming works both ways. Yes, it keeps us humble, but it also keeps us from selling ourselves short or psyching ourselves out before the starter’s pistol cracks. I am a chronic assumer. From 5Ks to marathons, I’ll glance at the runners around me and start making subconscious assumptions. Namely, I assume that everyone is faster than I am, fitter than I am, and more trained than I am. It takes only a few involuntary seconds before the confidence of months of training succumbs to the habitual “marathon compare-athon.” All because I assume.

The thing is, we can’t really tell who is fast. We can’t tell who is scared. Who is a novice. Who is a veteran. Not just by looking. Sure, some assumptions are safer than others. If you see a guy in split shorts, paper-thin racing flats, and a singlet adorned with a single-digit bib number… yeah, you can assume he has the potential to post a very speedy time. But even then, that’s assuming he finishes the race. (See?)

Unlike the easily distinguishable elites, the running masses are quite un-assume-able. Big, small, old, young, geared up, teched out, high roller, or worn ragged—you just never know. So remember the words of Obi-Wan. You can’t always trust your eyes. Never assume.

May the shorts be with you. 


Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious RunnerHer second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Storywill be released in 2014.

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