Do our really great runs happen by chance? Are they a question of luck, a whim of the universe, a sport of the cosmos?
I used to think so. On any unpredictable day, a mysterious something would go sprong and I’d find myself running in an inner flow, my mind calm and focused, my body humming with energy and rhythm. But I could never predict these moments. I could never make them happen at will. Yet I thought that there had to be a method, a technique, an application of the natural laws of body, heart, and mind that would help me craft good runs predictably.
I date the true start of my running career from the point where I began to discover how to draw the best out of each run. I still miss the mark more often than I like, but I’ve learned to improve the odds.
I gradually realized there were certain things I did that always seemed to improve the quality of a run, but if I didn’t do them, the run suffered.
Thomas Jefferson said: “I have studied the law that luck follows. The more good work I do, the more good luck I have.”
What kind of “good work” increases the odds of running well – of “running lucky”?
I’ve said this before: my best runs always happen when I “stretch my edges.” When I don’t zone out and run like a space cadet, but pay attention to what’s happening. (Photo: The Palo Alto Baylands seem to take a runner far from the city, though in fact they’re only minutes away. Here’s a gallery of Baylands photos. For running photographers: I recently replaced the tiny runner’s camera that took this photo – it was a Canon Powershot 700 SD IS. I’m now carrying a Sony Cybershot DSC-W700 – it’s less rugged but takes great pics.)
Every great run begins by accepting conditions exactly as they are, and not pretending that they’re different. On days when the body sputters and stalls, it’s futile to drive it hard; in fact, it will only take us backward.
It can be difficult to face reality. The most important run of the week, for most of us, is the long run. When a long run turns sour, it can be tempting to ignore the signals and push the body farther or faster than it “wants.” The long run is such a big slice of our training, it seems a terrible loss let it be vaporized.
But by working with reality, it’s possible to recover an amazing amount of good training and happiness from a sub-par run. When we cooperate with nature, it rewards us with health and good spirits. Maybe we can’t run our best, but we can draw the best out of the run.
Again and again, I’ve experienced how reliably this works. Last week, for example, I ate something that kept me awake all night. I put off the long run for several days to give my body time to recover, yet when I started, my legs felt leaden. Logic told me that my body should be ready to roll after several nights of good sleep; yet my body was telling a different story. It was frustrating.
After fretting for a while I decided there was no use fighting reality. I figured the best I could do was try to find the “harmony zone” for the day – the pace at which my body and heart felt “just right.” It was, of course, a slow pace. But I found that as long as I stayed in that easy zone I felt fine.
I ran quite slowly for the first hour and a half, being careful to consume enough fluids and fuel. Emotionally, I tried to merge my attention with each moment of the run and enjoy it. Fortunately, I was running in a lovely wildlife preserve on the edge of San Francisco Bay. It’s a dramatic place with green islands set amid winding waterways, and thousands of waterfowl flying and paddling about, the wind roaring 40 miles down the length of the Bay unhindered by any obstacles. It’s a fresh and energizing place to run – so it wasn’t difficult at all to stay interested.
After an hour and forty minutes I tentatively picked up the pace and discovered that I could run comfortably at 75% to 80% of max heart rate for perhaps a quarter-mile, then recover with a couple minutes of easy jogging. Not too shabby, for a day that began in a trench.
Near the end of the run I did some one-minute accelerations, very hard. I knew my body was giving me a “thumbs-up” to go fast because I felt enthusiasm in my heart for the speedy running. Later, the hard spells began to feel forced and emotionally gray, a sure sign that my body had had enough. After the run I felt good, in positive spirits, and this told me once again that I’d done the right kind of running.
There are truly no bad runs; there are only opportunities. When we work patiently with nature, it rewards us unfailingly. The secret of great runs is simple: all that’s needed is that we pay attention, listen with humility, and do the right thing.