Few years ago Roberta Groner came 6th in the marathon distance at the World Championships in Doha and made headlines all over the world. Why was it newsworthy? Groner was not a professional runner. She was a 41-year old full-time nurse, and a mother of three. The media had a field day with this. The motivational pillows with slogans like “If you believe it, you can achieve it!” were practically crocheting themselves. The superficial story as I heard it was as follows: It was super hot. All these runners were dropping like flies, but our nurse, who did not run her first marathon until her mid-thirties, full of determination and grit, just kept on keeping on like the little engine that could. And voila – 6th place. This is like the runner’s version of Cinderella.
Except, Roberta Groner is no average 41-year old nurse, y’all: — She was a competitive runner in college. — She ran her first marathon in 3:12:42 – more than an hour faster than the average finishing time (light years in marathon time). — She ran 100 miles a week (12-15 hours of training) leading up to this race. — She met the 2020 Olympic standard with her 2:29:09 race in Rotterdam earlier that year. Sure, based on her past performances, placing 6th at the World Championships was not the most likely scenario for Groner. Before the carnage began, she was on track for 30th spot in the field of 68 runners (28 of them never finished). This IS an incredible accomplishment for a master’s runner. Groner HAS worked hard for this, and every second of her marathon time is well-earned. There are only two other women in US who managed to break 2:30 after their 40th birthday – both professional runners. But if we only look at the top layer of the story, we miss the complexity and nuance. The overarching message of “work hard, and you’ll get there” is oversimplified at best. Groner started out with incredible genetics, AND solid running background – at least two variables that we’d have to account for, when looking at her success. The message is not “it doesn’t matter how old you are”. It’s not “if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything” either. Rather, it’s: “Solid running base, consistent training coupled with great genetics and a little bit of luck, can help runners elite-level performance into their 40s.” Unfortunately, THAT wouldn’t fit on a pillow. Examining the stories - our own and those that others have of us - AND tapping into the nuance - is one of the things I do often with my coaching clients.