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October 3, 2008

Poster Dilemma

Less than 24 hours after Haile Gebrselassie’s mind-boggling world record 2:03:59 marathon performance last Sunday, one of my friends sent me the following e-mail:

You’re going to need a new poster for [my son].

It was a reference to an article I had written for my old website several years ago - after receiving a poster of then-world record holder Paul Tergat – full of philosophical wrangling about the simple act of hanging a poster in my young son’s bedroom. And since I’m somewhat in slacker mode lately when it comes to posting, this seemed like an opportune time to republish the article here on my blog.

If nothing else, it’s a good reminder that blogging didn’t make me crazy; I was pretty far down that road a long time ago. Just in case you were wondering.


"Poster Dilemma" October 2003

In April 2002, Khalid Khannouchi set the marathon world record by running 2:05:38 at the London Marathon.

Shortly after that race, at the Big Sur Marathon expo, the folks at the New Balance booth gave away free Khannouchi posters, emblazoned with his race time and the words “world record holder.” I grabbed one as an afterthought, thinking maybe I’d hang it in the back of my closet – someplace I could briefly glance for a small dose of inspiration when I grabbed my running shoes each morning, but would otherwise remain unobtrusive.

The poster never made it to my closet.

As is our custom with every marathon, my kids sat down with me when I came home after the expo and emptied out my goody bag, searching for energy bar samples, stickers, or anything else that catches their eye. My then-four-year-old son asked about the Khannouchi poster, and seemed genuinely impressed when I told him that this was the fastest marathon runner in the world. He asked if he could tape the poster up onto his wall, and I just couldn’t refuse.

Thereafter, almost every night as we got ready for bath time, he talked about the poster, and the runner who was even faster than Daddy, and faster than anyone in the world. He actually learned to pronounce “Khalid Khannouchi” better than most adults, and started recognizing other pictures of Khannouchi from running magazines around the house. Even his two-year-old sister began to talk to the picture of “Anoochi” when playing in her brother’s room. (Some families have Tiger Woods, others have Kobe Bryant; ours has skinny marathoners as role models. Read into that what you will.)

And then this September, Paul Tergat goes and breaks the marathon world record - and our whole bedtime routine is thrown into disarray.

First, a couple points of clarification: Tergat didn’t just break the world record, but smashed through it by almost a full minute - an improvement of the same mind-boggling proportion as Michael Johnson’s demolition of the 200m record at the Atlanta Olympics. Not only that, but the man who came in second place, Sammy Korir, also ran faster than Khannouchi’s previous WR time.

In just one day, the marathoning world got turned on its ear (however unbeknownst, it seems, to mass media – but that’s another story), a Kenyan runner staked his claim as the best endurance runner in history (a strong argument can be made, with Tergat’s multiple world XC championships and medals at world track championships) [**2008 update: in light of his recent feats, I’d still go with Gebrselassie], and now I’m facing a dilemma as to what to do with that Khannouchi poster.

If I leave the poster up, do I sit my son down and explain that Khannouchi isn’t the fastest marathoner in the world anymore? If so, do we now try to get a Paul Tergat poster also, to place on the wall slightly ahead of Khannouchi’s? Should I teach my children Paul Tergat’s name, and pick pictures from magazines so they can identify him? And do we look for a Sammy Korir poster also, to place in the middle of the other two? How long would we keep this process up? If enough people run faster than Khannouchi’s time, we would run out of wall space to hang everyone’s poster. Can we just cross out the inscription on the poster, and correct my kids whenever they talk to the “fastest marathoner”, reminding them that Khannouchi is now only the third fastest? The day-to-day details could get confusingly murky.

On the other hand, it seems downright cold-hearted to take the poster down. Imagine the negative messages would that send my kids: if you are not the best, you don’t command our recognition or respect. Once your achievement has been eclipsed, our admiration for you immediately shifts onto someone else, forgetting all the hard work and perseverance that helped you set the record in the first place.

After all, it’s not like Khannouchi was involved in a sex scandal with an intern; somebody (well, 2 somebodies) just ran faster than he did. If that were the standard for keeping photographs in sight, my house would be filled with pictures of all my speedy training partners instead of me and my wife and kids.

Plus, the poster is now part of the decoration in my son’s room, just as much as the painted giraffe on his wall, or the stuffed rhinoceros on his bed. Removing the poster for such an arbitrary reason would be unfathomable to him.

The simplest solution, of course, is for Khalid to break the world record again. The poster would stay up by itself, without modification, and the distinction would again be quite simple- Khalid Khannouchi, world’s fastest marathon runner. I realize that is a tall order to ask of someone, and may take many months or even years to come to fruition – if it ever does at all.

In the meantime, if anyone knows where I can get a Paul Tergat poster, I might be interested in buying one. I’ll make up my mind what to do with it later.


olga 10/4/08, 5:19 PM  

Khalid can be simply described from now on as an inspiration to other marathoners to break barriers, just as Pre is. And let the kid pick the poster to hang next. It should be more than 2 posters anyway, trust me, I had boys:)

Danielle in Iowa 10/5/08, 9:16 AM  

My only argument for replacing the Khannouchi poster would be that Gebrselassie is a heck of a lot harder to pronounce and it might occupy your kids for a while (Paul Tergat? Gees, a three year old could pronounce that!)

triguyjt 10/7/08, 10:34 AM  

what???? no vintage pre poster or something???

hey..its great that posters of marathoners are on the wall..not some grand theft auto game poster....

Darrell 10/7/08, 6:21 PM  

Great thoughts.

I think that picture of Haile would make a great poster.

I'm sure you can figure out some great life lesson here somehow without sending the kid into therapy.

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) 10/20/08, 11:38 PM  

Hey, did you get your kid a Desiree poster yet?

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