A Rose by Any Other Name

Photo by Jason Hill

It’s that time again: the Fastest Known Time of the Year nominations are open, and my social media feed is flooded with photos and stories of amazing athletes and efforts from the last year. I submitted a nomination right away for a friend that I feel hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention or credit for her amazing feat. I wish there were at least ten nomination spots and not just one, because they’d be easy to fill.

However. It feels strange to quantify and compare athletic endeavors and stories, and then rank them. I mean, we do it as a society all the time, so this is nothing new. You have your 30 under 30, the multitude of film and music awards, SI awards, the list goes on. I eagerly await the list of Academy Award nominees every year to get ideas of what movies I want to go see. FKT noms/titles are a great way to acknowledge and recognize some incredible humans and their stories, and give you an idea of who to pay attention to in the future.

The dark side of the emergence of the FKT nominations, for me personally, is the horrible feelings of inadequacy it stirs up. If only I could be the most impressive, the most athletic, the most badass. If only I overcame the most. I am not the most of any of those things. Then I list out to myself all of the reasons I actually really suck and could do better. I am embarrassed to admit any of this, because accolades aren’t the underlying reason why I run and hike at all. If anything it’s ironic that I’ve gotten the most press and recognition for not breaking a record (on the AT–I completed the fastest traverse northbound for a woman, and the second fastest time for a woman behind Jennifer Pharr Davis). I didn’t think anyone would care. But, being one with human desires, or perhaps it’s simply a built-in survival mechanism, I want very much to be liked, accepted, and respected by my peers.

Coming from the very subjective world of music, I was initially drawn to running by how cut and dry it is. I run a race, and I have a place and a time, and no one can take that away from me. There’s no audition or jury. It doesn’t matter how beautiful or personable I am, how well I promote myself, how good my stage presence is, or whether my playing or writing style appeals to someone else. You put in the work, you improve, and you execute on race day. That’s it. It was totally refreshing.

There is obviously a downside to a numbers-driven approach that can turn really unhealthy, like summing up your self-worth in time, rank, or what’s on the scale. That’s not what I’m getting at here. I think it’s the simple objectivity that is appealing to me, which is why I like FKTs and footraces at all. It’s you versus the clock, yourself, or whoever else shows up that day. You break a record or you don’t. You reach a personal goal or you don’t. You’re prepared or you’re not. You choose how to react when things don’t go your way. Whether or not you succeed, it’s the act of putting yourself out there and trying at all that makes it great, and very much worth it (okay, you could say that about music too). The best part is, the outcome is objective and doesn’t depend on what other people think.

So perhaps what’s coming up for me is that I did some cool things this year that I feel proud of and gained a lot of personal satisfaction from, and now I’m looking back and essentially quantifying those efforts and comparing myself to others, which doesn’t seem healthy or productive. It’s certainly not the fault of Fastest Known Time as an entity or anyone I follow on social media; clearly it’s just bringing up some of my own insecurities: the subjectivity that running has consistently provided me an escape from.

So, how to deal? It helps to zoom out and remember why I like doing this stuff, as spelled out above. There’s plenty of room in the sport of running and endurance hiking for everyone, and no one person’s effort is made any less meaningful by another, even if we don’t all get prize in the end. This past weekend I was delighted to run a fantastic-for-me cross country 6K, nowhere close to a personal record and nowhere close to the leaders, but great under the circumstances. In eleven days, I’ll be lining up at the start of the very competitive JFK 50 Mile with absolutely zero notion of winning, but every intention to run to my potential. The course is simply a stage that I get to perform on in a thousand-person production.

Laura Green hit the nail on the head in pointing out (when it comes to your race finish time), “No one cares”! Upon completing the Long Trail, a friend and I had a good laugh about it on the phone a few days later because for me personally, it was a huge deal, but in the end, the world keeps turning, my life did not change–no one cares.* How wonderful! I care, and that’s fine, and it’s enough.

*After re-reading this, it feels unfair and a bit rude to my family, friends, and readers to say, “no one cares”, because it’s clear from the care that you have all shown for me, and the investment in my efforts, that it’s simply not true! Perhaps it would have been better stated, “Your results and accomplishments do not make you any more or less worthy as a person.”


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Who is Mercury?

Liz Derstine, trail name “Mercury”, is a distance runner, endurance hiker, writer, and musician residing in Boston, MA. She holds fastest known times for women on the Appalachian Trail (supported, northbound), Long Trail (self-supported), and Pinhoti Trail (self-supported).

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