Our Own Kind of Champion

My 5k PR is a mediocre 18:18. At no time, not even when I ran that race at age 32, have I shown the least sign of sports talent. Physiologist David L. Costill, PhD says the best indicator of running ability is how hard your heart works when you run a six-minute mile. If your heart beats at an unusually low percentage of your MHR, it’s a strong indicator that you’re special. I’m not. That 18-minute 5K like to killed me. At six-minute pace, my heart has always been redlined. I’ve never run 400 meters, let alone 5K, faster than 5:20 pace.

It’s strange, because my life has brought me in contact with lots of really good runners. A personal friend, Gary Fanelli, still runs 10 miles in under 55 minutes, in his mid-fifties. My 10-mile PR is 70 minutes. Another friend of mine ran a 3:04 marathon at age 64. My PR is 3:55.

If I compare myself with those guys, I’ll get depressed quickly. I worked at Runner’s World for four years in the early seventies, and good runners were always wandering through. I’ve had to learn to live with my so-called gifts. And here’s what I eventually figured out: I can’t be a champion at fast running, but I can be a champion of joy.

That was a fascination of mine from the very beginning. When I started running, I was in awful shape, not only physically but mentally and emotionally. Running gave me a respite from the wretchedness of the rest of my life — it was an oasis, a place I could go to find harmony and experience an inner release, freedom, and happiness for a brief time. So, from the beginning, I was curious to know more about how running and joy work. And, in order to do that, I had to find out how to optimize my running on all levels, not just physically but in heart, mind, and soul. And the lovely thing is that I succeeded, though it would take 20 years, and it wasn’t easy.

Naturally, I wanted to share my discoveries with others. (The nature of joy is that it wants to spread.) But before I could share in a way that others might understand and be helped, I had to figure out the “rules” of joyful running. I had to formulate how running “works” on those four levels. And, again, I succeeded.

I had to understand how to make my body energized and healthy; how to harmonize and open my heart; how to calm and focus my mind; and how to appeal inwardly to and receive guidance from a higher power.

I tested the methods for years, through thousands of miles of running. And I found that they worked consistently. As you know if you’ve spent time on this site, I discovered that the heart is key. The physical heart, but also the emotional, reflective, spiritual heart.

Again, I won’t go into that, because what I really want to talk about is people of ordinary talent like mine, and what makes us able to be champions.

In sports, I think there’s a widespread notion that only the champions get great joy from their accomplishments. This is untrue. Though it is true that people who use sports as a vehicle for expanding their awareness get greater joy than those who don’t. A mentally or emotionally lazy or mean-spirited champion gets less joy than one who invests energy in expanding awareness at all levels. Those kinds of folks tend to become highly magnetic. I think of Bob Kennedy, Bill Rodgers, Utta Pippig, Ingrid Kristiansen, Deena Kastor, Grete Waitz, and a host of others. All were sharing, open folks who seemed to know that running wasn’t just about the body.

We seldom have the opportunity to watch the faces of these champion runners throughout a race, unless the TV camera dwells on them. But, if we could do so, I think we’d find that their faces would tell us a lot about the attitudes that bring success.

In other sports, it’s easier to read body language and attitudes. I think of Pete Sampras, possibly the greatest male tennis player of all time. I’m not a tennis fan, and I don’t play the game. But I always found it fascinating to watch Sampras, because he was a master of sports psychology. Throughout a match, his face revealed one thing primarily: complete, undivided focus. And when Sampras committed an error, his reaction was right out of the pages of sports psychology. He turned away from the action and calmly shifted his focus away from the past and back to the present moment. When he turned back to the camera, he was again his composed, unruffled self, as if to say: the game starts here.

We can learn a lot from watching the champions. And to the extent that we “stretch our edges” mentally, physically and spiritually, we can get a very large measure of the same satisfaction and joy that they do. Perhaps we can’t all be champions on the physical plane — we may not be able to lower our 5K time indefinitely, because physical talent is determined at birth, by our inherited VO2Max and biodynamics. But there are no limits to the extent to which we can improve our hearts and minds, if we gradually, steadily practice one-pointed concentration, self-control, kindness, and devotion to high ideals.

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