You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes

Here's what we learned about what it's like to move your legs back and forth for a living.
You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes

Between track meets, annual marathons, and the Olympics (the good ones that people watch -- well, that some people watch), professional running is a giant industry. We spoke with David Torrence, Pan-American Games silver medalist and current Olympian, about what it's like to move your legs back and forth for a living. He told us ...

Professional Sports Leagues Don't Court You -- Brands Do

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

There's no Monday Night Running on TV, so instead of talent scouts recruiting for a league, it's the shoe companies that go after professional runners. In fact, your running career only starts when the representative of a shoe company decides you've got moxie. No other sporting career starts with the endorsement. This, of course, weeds out certain types of runners. Thirty years ago, there were tons of barefoot runners -- some won Olympic events. But because it's pointless for a shoe company to sponsor a barefoot runner, at least until Nike starts making toe rings, it's impossible for a barefoot runner to do it professionally.

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Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

And now the answer to "What idiot thought this up?" is suddenly a lot clearer.

Some runners do go independent and drive themselves to the meets, living off of the meager winnings. I did this for a year before being picked up, and it's not easy or glamorous: Many live in their cars. Remember how Happy Gilmore endlessly traveled from golf course to golf course until Subway finally sponsored him? It's like that, only marginally less depressing than Adam Sandler's movie career.

Professional Running Doesn't Look Like It Does In The Movies

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes
Warner Bros.

Check out this clip from Chariots Of Fire:

"Brb, suddenly have the urge to run a marathon."

Even back in the early 1900s, they knew that flailing your arms like you're trying to achieve unpowered human flight isn't good practice. Besides, doing something like that in a race would get a runner disqualified, because flailing like one of those wacky inflatable dancing guys means you're more likely to smack a nearby runner. Yet even Tom Hanks did this in Forrest Gump. He's supposed to be a good long distance runner, but running like that screws up a person's airflow, making them exert way more energy than they need to. And they especially need that energy: In movies, runners basically sprint for the entirety of a mile-long race. That never happens. After 800 meters, even extremely fit runners start to fade. The goal is to have enough energy left to really sprint when you get closer to the finish line.

That's because you can't risk anything at the finish line. Another scene in Chariots Of Fire shows the runners celebrating juuust before crossing the finish line. That's a famously terrible idea. Check out this video of an Oregon race where the runner in the lead gave one wave to his family and was immediately passed by the dude behind him.

"Better keep waving that hand, son, because hitchhiking is the only way you're getting home."

Always keep your eyes on the prize. Or somebody else will take your prize. And videotape it. Then upload it to the Internet, where we'll all make fun of you forever.

Running Injuries Can Be Gruesome

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes
David Torrence

I do hours of exercise every day. I get massage therapy and chiropractic therapy every week just to hover around 90 percent. Running is hard on your body, especially when you're reaching speeds of nearly 20 miles per hour. I've got to be diligent, bordering on paranoid with my health, because my body is my literal meal ticket. If I get hurt and don't heal properly, there's no way I'll ever reach my old peak performance again. And that translates directly into lost money.

It's like losing your hair: Yes, you may be able to attain a respectable "Sean Connery in The Untouchables" level of baldness, but you'll never go back to your glory Goldfinger days. Some runners -- including me -- are so terrified of getting hurt between practicing that we don't even walk during our off hours. I literally put my feet up and stay on my ass to be as fresh as possible for the race.

Or else this could happen.

I've been injured tons of times. I'm always riding that line of "doing enough" and "over-doing." Training too much taxes your immune system, which makes it easier to get sick. There are muscle tears and bone spurs to worry about, too. Every professional runner has something: Foot problems, knee problems, ankle problems -- there is never a time when I am completely 100 percent. A Runner's World poll found that one in nine runners had a knee injury within the prior year.

But the biggest problem isn't tearing a muscle or having a kneecap pop out of place. (Although both are very real dangers.)

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes
Muscle Pull

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes
South Florida Sports Medicine

You never want your calf looking like a cartoon ham.

During longer races, runners draft like race cars -- following directly behind someone to minimize wind resistance. Runners wear shoes with a quarter inch of sharpened steel on them for grip. When drafting, any stride can send that cleated foot back right into your leg. Cleat wounds can end a career. Especially if all the dirt residue on the cleat gets in there and causes an infection. I almost ended another runner's career that way.

I was running a race in Belgium at a really crowded meet. One of my teammates went down in front of me and I had to hurdle over him. Meanwhile, another American runner, Darren Brown, cut in front right when I was landing. My spikes went right into his calf muscle and slid all the way down to his ankle. The entire last lap I thought to myself, "Oh my God, I ended his career" -- I could hear him screaming halfway across the track.

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes

Brown was out for several months. My cleat missed his major muscles,
but he needed 16 stitches for an eight-inch gash.

If I'd hit a major muscle, he might have been permanently hobbled. If my response sounds cold-blooded -- I flying spike-kick the poor bastard then leave him for the wolves -- you've gotta understand that ...

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes

We Can't Stop And Help Fellow Runners

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Running is one of the few jobs where it's outright forbidden to help your fallen co-workers. When I spiked Darren, I couldn't go back for him, no matter what I wanted to do.

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes

Which is really the point where it becomes less of a race and more of a death march.

If someone goes down, we just run right by like a bunch of cold-hearted bastards. That's because the medics can't get out until all the runners have passed. That could mean several minutes of agony before help arrives. And if a runner does show human kindness and helps a fellow, he is disqualified. Survival of the fittest at its most literal.

There's No Such Thing As A Break

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes
David Torrence

Being a runner means you work 24/7. We call ourselves monks, because they always ask if their next act would help further God's will. Runners take every action wondering, "Is this good for my ability to run?" Even menial decisions, like what position we sit down in, warrant extensive thought.

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes
David Torrence

"Which shape of ice cube will promote the best recovery?"

Weekends are meaningless. I can't go to bars with friends, and I can't do happy hours. I put in 100 miles of running a week (some people put in up to 150). That's just the physical training: The best runners also get media coaching so they know how to answer questions like a normal human being, rather than a dangerously insane hermit with amazing thighs. Whenever an underdog with no media coaching wins, always stick around for the interview at the end. It's guaranteed to be entertainingly awkward, like a testimonial from The Office, only sweatier.

Everything Can Fall Apart In A Moment

You Can't Help Fallen Runners: 6 Realities Of Track Athletes
Patrick Smith/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

To qualify for the Olympics in the U.S., you must have the Olympic standard (meet a certain time for a distance) and you need to be in the top three in your event. The level of competition in the U.S. is ridiculous. Kenya and the U.S. are top two in the world, and the U.S. has by far the most potential runners. In other countries, there are only a few who meet the Olympic standard, so they go automatically (some Americans have actually switched nationalities just to make it to the games). In the U.S. we have hundreds who meet the standard.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

"OK, to thin out the crowd, we're going to release the Minotaur."

And it all depends on the trials. If the fastest person on Earth has a bad day and comes in fourth, they're not going to the Olympics. Remember that scene in Cool Runnings where the three runners fall during the Olympic qualifying race and there is no do-over? That totally happens.

The pressure gets to you. At the 2012 trials, where I competed, I ended up giving speed surges at the wrong times and came in fifth place. In a different race from mine, one of the top 10 runners in the world had two false starts and got disqualified. He threw his shoes into the crowd in frustration. Hopefully they didn't spike somebody's calf and ruin their career ...


"I didn't even have to give him my Coke for these!"

Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy and a personal experience team member at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you would like to share? Hit us up at!

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