A Runner’s Path

Want to meet a legend? Check this Youth Runner interview with Gerry Lindgren.

Lindgren holds the high school indoor records for 3000m and 2 miles (8:06.3 and 8:40.0), forty-seven years after he ran those amazing times in 1964.

Gerry Lindgren on right, in dead heat with Steve Prefontaine

The photo shows Gerry (on right) in a dead heat with Steve Prefontaine, probably at the Pac-8 cross-country championships.

Gerry’s training as a high-schooler was jaw-dropping. Not many teens have run 150-250-mile weeks consistently, as he did.

Lindgren still loves running. His remarks are laced with high spirits:

“Mind you, MILES were not counted. We didn’t keep track of how many miles we ran back then. We just ran. If you LOVE to run with the kind of passion I have for running, you will understand this. Running was my mode of transportation….”

“Speedwork is terribly overrated! I remember talking to runners after distance races, and someone was sure to say they were able to run fast off base work with no speedwork at all. The truth is speedwork doesn’t work. Lots of miles, and then fast miles gets you there much quicker than speedwork….”

“If you just take off and do it without any preparation or knowledge, you can run an ultra every day and it won’t hurt you. Humans are a TOUGH animal! We can do anything.”

It’s an enjoyable read – until the end, when Gerry utters words that should never have been allowed to appear in print, particularly in a magazine for aspiring young runners.

“Everyone dies whether one is good in their lifetime or evil in their lifetime. So virtue has no payback. Life is meaningless. When you die, you die! The only thing that lives beyond the grave is the wake you have created by the way you have lived your life…. Our lives do not belong to us. This life is made to change all reality. We are here for the benefit, happiness, and welfare of a new reality; a new direction.”

Gerry surely meant that we should radiate goodness in every moment. That’s the kind of guy Gerry is. In its entry on him, Wikipedia cites his belief in karma:

Lindgren has reiterated his belief in “Karma” as a large factor in his running success. He claims that, “Karma comes from serving other people instead of serving yourself. I found that if I could serve others people without them knowing about it I could grow Karma faster,” and that this would lead to success on the track.

But – “Virtue has no payback. Life is meaningless.” – ??????

Gerry was speaking off the cuff, and perhaps he might have thought better of his rather gloomy argument later. Regardless, the editors of Youth Runner should be pelted with peat moss, force-fed sushi, and dipped by their scrawny necks in lilac water.

It’s the only way I can think of to rid them of the stench that emanates from the rotting corpse of Jean Paul Sartre, to poison the atmosphere of our colleges and universities.

Alternatively, they could be invited to read J. Donald Walters’s wonderful book, Out of the Labyrinth – For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t.

Running isn’t meaningless. Neither is life – sourpuss philosophes notwithstanding. I summon as my evidence a simple notion from Out of the Labyrinth that has immediate practical implications for runners. It’s called “directional relativity.”

Consider the training of the African elites. It’s beyond my ability to imagine. Yet I find I can practice the principles by which they train, scaled to the level of a 69-year-old bog-snorkeler.

Haile Gebrselassie and I will never train together. What’s good for Haile would kill me, yet we’re training in the same direction, toward increasing fitness and health and joy. That’s directional relativity.

Consider a lazy slob who gets up one day and puts on his least-greasy shirt, and ventures out to find a job as a used-car salesman. His friends applaud, because he’s clearly doing a “good” thing – good, because it will give him more happiness.

But what if Mahatma Gandhi had suddenly declared, “I’m sick of helping the poor. I’m heading over to Calcutta to make my fortune in rice futures.” Everyone would have said “This man has fallen!”

What’s expansive for the lazy slob would be tragic for a Gandhi. Saints and slobs have different priorities – yet they’re moving in the same direction, toward greater happiness and freedom from suffering.

That’s directional relativity.

Directional relativity is how the world works. And it drives a stake in the heart of the fashionable notion that life is meaningless.

It also dispels some false ideas about running – for example, the notion that runners who share the same goal – say, a 3:30 marathon – should do the same training.

The worst books on running say: “If you want to run a 3:30 marathon, here are six months of daily schedules that will get you there, if you follow them religiously.”

Most runners nowadays would recognize that kind of advice as bosh. Training isn’t about following rigid systems; it’s about juggling a million variables skillfully.

The “best” training changes daily. When your body is tired, or your Achilles hurts, or you’ve eaten something that disagreed with you, or you’ve slept poorly, or the weather is horrible – the best training is what moves you in the right direction, without breaking your body or killing your joy. In this scheme of things, no training is wasted. Even our slowest runs have value, so long as they move us ahead, toward greater fitness and fulfillment.

The ultramarathoners have a fine acronym: “RFP.” It stands for “Relentless Forward Progress.” When you’re halfway through a 50-mile race and you’re feeling awful, it means that you can be a winner if you keep moving forward, even if it’s at a crawl.

Gerry got it wrong. I realize he was speaking with feeling, spontaneously. But life holds the promise of great joy – in body, heart, will, and mind. And, most satisfyingly, in soul.

From my perspective as an ancient monk who’s been pestering God for going on 45 years, it’s my experience that the joys of a runner aren’t terribly far removed from the happiness of inner communion. The direction is the same – toward happiness and love and inner strength and wisdom and joy. Meditation allows us to go deeper – and, in time, all the way. But, at its level, running holds the potential for expanding awareness and tapping that blissful source as well.

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