Incidental Joy

I’m reading Lorraine Moller’s book, On the Wings of Mercury, and enjoying it. Moller grew up in New Zealand. As soon as her talent was recognized – it didn’t take long; she was winning every youth race she entered – she attracted the attention of a track and field official who introduced her to John Davies, an Arthur Lydiard protege who had won the 1500m bronze at the 1964 Olympics. Although Moller would switch coaches several times – from Davies to Ron Daws and Dick Quax – her training was always based on Lydiard’s ideas.

I recently quoted Lydiard’s response to an American coach who pestered him to explain how his runners dealt with “the pain of training.” At first, Lydiard seemed not to understand the question, but when he did he was indignant: “We enjoyed our training!”

Lorraine Moller surely enjoyed hers. For most of her early years, she ran with her father on hilly forest trails. They made a game of it. Late in a run, her dad would cup a hand to his ear, as if listening for the applause of the trees. That was the signal: father and daughter would race hard to the finish. Lorraine was faster, but Gordon was sly – he would pretend to tie a shoelace, then shoot out of a crouch to gain a step on his talented daughter. Or he would grab the back of her singlet and catapult himself into the lead.

Moller writes beautifully – she’s transparently sincere and speaks from the heart. It strikes me that these are qualities of good runs. The most enjoyable runs aren’t “pretentious,” in the sense of trying to be something else. They grow out of a relaxed acceptance of conditions as they are – never making the body “live up to the numbers,” or insisting how a run should turn out.

Moller found joy by being herself – and, of course, she found great success, with a win at Boston and a bronze in the 1992 Olympic marathon in Barcelona.

Anne Audain, for a time Moller’s chief rival, ran a 2:32 debut marathon: a disappointing time. Moller comments:

As far as I was concerned there was only one basic mistake to be made in the marathon, besides being untrained: going too fast too soon. I told John so [Audain’s coach, John Davies], but he disagreed. The treadmill test indicated that she was well within her limits, he said. I felt heartened. I knew then that Anne would never be a great marathoner for she lacked an essential skill; she ran by the numbers instead of tuning into her body. My best advice would have been to tell her to stick to the 10-k. She was good at that and it suited her aggressive style. The marathon was better left to the silent, brooding type like me, who could sit and stalk, not the bashing runner like her who gained confidence from being in the front.

Rich Englehart, the journalist who recently let me post his 2000 interview with three-time gold medalist Peter Snell, told me that Lorraine was working on a book to help runners listen to their bodies. I offered her a copy of Fitness Intuition, thinking she might be enjoy the Heartmath research on positive feelings. She graciously offered to swap books.

Six months ago, I might have felt shy about offering my little effort to an Olympian. Who was I? Just an old, untalented plodder with a curiosity about running’s “inner” side.

Also, until quite recently, I felt that there was a gaping hole in my book, something I’d overlooked, an aspect of running that I’d neglected. It was the reason I’d never put much effort into marketing it. Now, I believe the book is finished. I added seven chapters, based on articles I posted here, and I think they fill the gap. They’re about energy and joy and Arthur Lydiard – three things that go together nicely.

(If you purchased Fitness Intuition before I added the new chapters in June 2009, I’ll be happy to email you a PDF of them. To send your request, please use the email link at the bottom of this page. I would insert the link here, but it may not work properly with the software I use to post these pages.)

Thousands of people train for a first marathon by doing all of their running slowly. Jeff Galloway and others tell first-time marathoners to train for distance, rather than speed. Their message is: “To go far, you must teach your body to put out a little bit of energy, over a long time.”

Those runners have my blessings – in fact, I was one of them. Galloway’s Book on Running helped me finish my first marathon. I enjoyed the long training runs, even though I didn’t get any faster. I loved rambling on single-track trails for hours. But once I’d run 12 marathons and maybe thirty 50Ks and 50-milers, the joy began to fade.

I noticed that many runners trained faster and appeared to enjoy it. On occasional runs where I picked up the pace, I enjoyed it, too. And I loved it when my body found a smooth rhythm, and energy flowed so strongly in my legs and lungs that I sailed effortlessly down the trail. I began to equate high energy with a separate and wonderful kind of running.

Whenever I would read about the training of the elites, I smiled a lot. Sharing the experiences of these high-powered individuals magnetized me. For example, there was Bruce Fordyce, the South African who won the Comrades ultramarathon eight times straight. Reading about this great runner in Tim Noakes’s Lore of Running, I was deeply attracted by his ideas.

Fordyce’s philosophy was entirely about balance. Noakes reports that he “always exercised extreme caution and never lost focus in training or racing. In particular, he was careful not to overtrain.”

Again, “He rarely did too much.” And he trained gently in the off-season, with a long, gradual buildup to racing.

But, at the same time, Fordyce believed in training for quality, not quantity. He said, “The idea is not to be able to sprint – after all, most ultramarathons are decided long before the final meters are run – but to be able to raise cruising speed.”

Now, that was an idea that I just absolutely loved! Long, extremely slow distance had done nothing for my speed-endurance. And I found that cruising at a pace above a crawl was nearly always more rewarding.

Fordyce didn’t do very many long runs, but he did them fast. He seldom ran longer than 2 hours, but he believed that “speed is the killer.”

He balanced hard work with caution, which he said, “means experimenting carefully with new ideas long before the race; and it means not falling into the trap of excessive training mileage.”

Were runners like Fordyce really all that different? In his natural gifts – oh, boy, you bet, absolutely. But the qualities that magnetized me were about energy. And surely I could learn to manage energy well, at my level.

In my running, I had discovered that the experience of expansion – of becoming stronger – is always enjoyable. And, conversely, never improving just wasn’t enjoyable at all.

I wondered if Galloway & Company weren’t unintentionally doing their followers a disservice. Were the slow-training hordes missing out on some of running’s greatest joys?

I guess the answer is: it depends. If slow running expands a newcomer’s fitness, it’s bound to be a high. There’s that old, inescapable natural law again: expansion always brings a corresponding extra shot of happiness. But I was long past basic fitness. Slow-paced running had stopped being expansive.

When I started running, I followed Kenneth Cooper’s Aerobics program, which, in 1968, called for lots of hard running. As my fitness improved, I gradually transitioned to a kind of Lydiard-style program. I did three or four runs a week at a high aerobic pace, plus about 12 miles of fast walking five days a week, in my job as a letter carrier.

I often ran too fast, and it always took a chunk out of my joy. But there were times when I hit exactly the right chord, with a balanced, medium, sustainably high aerobic pace that felt just right. Those runs were a fertile ground for good times and progress. They were true Lydiard runs. Lydiard believed that aerobic fitness improves quickest by running three times a week – two medium-long runs and a long run – at the highest aerobic pace. (Lydiard’s called it “medium pace.”)

The lesson of the “long, slow years” was inescapable. Slow training brought a certain joy – a sleepy, meditative, reflective joy. But for human sanity, I needed to balance it with high-energy running that would stimulate improvement.

I used to be puzzled by the variety in training methods of the elite runners. Some, like Bruce Fordyce, trained hard but seldom ran long. Others, like master’s ace Norm Green (2:25:51 at age 52) , ran everything at race pace – in his case, sub-6:00, even in his 50s. And while preparing for his assault on the US 100K record, Bernd Heinrich ran a daily 20-miler at a relentless 6:00 pace. Many other runners succeeded on Lydiard-style periodized training.

Gosh, I wondered, how could I emulate the elites if they all ran differently? I wanted to find the single best, right way to train. In time, I answered my own question: “It doesn’t matter.”

I realized that training is always about energy, regardless of our individual gifts. And the way we use energy must always be carefully tailored to our own talent, fitness, age, gender, body weight, diet, sleep, the weather, etc. These are things that we can’t conveniently look up in a table and run accordingly. We must get to know ourselves, and learn to listen to our inner feelings, which can tell us how to train.

Did the elites really train differently? In the details, certainly, yes, no question. But probably not in principle.

Only man creates from outside. Nature creates from within. Training, too, must come from inside. Training is simple: run, recover; use energy, rebuild energy. Only our individual needs change.

That said, Lorraine Moller’s training was amazing. She was an extremely gifted runner. Before her first marathon, under the tutelage of Ron Daws, she ran 100-mile weeks that included a Sunday 28-miler.

On that training, she found that winning marathon after marathon was not much harder (and sometimes easier) than her long runs. In her book, she recalls how she fell apart late in a Sunday 28-miler from dehydration. Daws insisted that she “make up” the run the following day by running another 28 miles, “on principle.”

She remembers how she collapsed on the floor after the run and lay for hours, unable to stand, crawl, or move. That she survived and thrived speaks volumes about her gift: her ability to recover and absorb the training. As she lay on the floor exhausted, she felt a great sense of triumph, and knew that she would start her marathons better trained than the other runners. Moller had a tremendous endurance base, built since she was 14. In her early teens, she often logged 100-mile weeks, and recalls that she enjoyed them.

Nature made it enjoyable to run fast and slow, each in its time. A dawdling pace can be deeply enjoyable, when the body is tired. Those feelings are the body’s way of thanking us for doing the right thing. Arthur Lydiard knew this: he believed that, outside of the three main aerobic runs, dawdling runs speeded recovery and helped build the necessary mileage for elite success.

The key, again, is balance. It’s not a question of either-or, but of both-and. Those who only run slowly never get faster, and those who only train hard break down.

I’m proud of my book. It does three things that I’ve longed to accomplish, since my first run in 1968. I’m aware that it’s a niche book; it certainly won’t be every runner’s cup of tea. But I believe it can help three kinds of readers: (1) those who want to break away from an overly rational approach to running; (2) those who want to know how the five elements of a whole person blend with a training program: body, heart, will, mind, soul; and (3) those interested in how training can dovetail with a spiritual life.

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2 Responses to Incidental Joy

  1. Arch Jelley June 29, 2009 at 10:49 pm #

    Arthur Lydiard and I were in the same club – Owairaka, and every Sunday more than a dozen distance runners would run from Arthur’s place and another dozen or more would take off from my place. It was quite true that all the runners really enjoyed the 22 mile run around the rugged Waitakarua course. There was always a fair bit of skylarking going on during the run, but there was a tremendous sense of camaraderie, and the pace was often quite solid and competitive. We never ran in one big group but runners just graduated into the group which suited them best. It was always a lot of fun.

  2. Robert Wildes June 30, 2009 at 4:35 am #

    George I’m glad to see that you added some more chapters to your
    book.

    I’d like to get that PDF format for the additional chapters also.

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