Where Do I Get Off?

In writing this book, I found myself confronting a seemingly unbridgeable gap between scientific objectivity and materialism on the one hand, and a devotional, mystical way of looking at the world on the other. I came at running from both ends at once, and I wasn’t at first aware of any bridges between these two apparently incompatible viewpoints.

I knew that religion — or rather, spirituality — can be not only inspiring, but useful and practical, because it had proved so in my life. At every level, including the physical, spiritual practice had delivered helpful answers for the most mundane questions.

I also came from a deeply rational background. In high school, I’d been good at math and science, and while exploring spiritual questions as an undergrad and grad student at Stanford, I challenged every claim, accepting nothing that didn’t pass the test of logic and reason.

I began running at the ripe old age of 26, in 1968. I was living in Southern California, taking classes toward a teaching credential and working at the post office to support myself. I had almost completely recovered from being paralyzed from the chest down for 2½ years (a tumor was compressing my spinal cord), and I was in poor physical condition.

A spiritual counselor suggested that, while my spiritual practice seemed fine, I might not be getting enough exercise. What did he mean? (This was years before the full flood of the “running boom” would arrive.) In my free time, I walked for hours on the beach, thinking about spiritual subjects. The only people I saw exercising were college kids playing volleyball to the unvarying accompaniment of beer and loud music. What could I do?

I prayed for guidance, and at work the next day, my supervisor, a retired Air Force colonel, walked up, eyes gleaming, and pressed a book in my hands. “George, you’ve got to read this book! It’s great — I’ve been on the program for six months and it’s done wonders for me.” It was Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s first book, Aerobics.

I bought a copy and started putting the system to the test. After reading several chapters, I went to the beach for my “Twelve-Minute Test.” As the first step on the Aerobics program, you’re supposed to run and walk as far as possible in 12 minutes, and based on the distance you’re able to cover, you’re assigned an exercise program appropriate to your fitness level.

What I’d forgotten was that I’d donated a pint of blood just that morning. Needless to say, the test didn’t go well. Yet when I repeated it two days later, I got the same result: “Poor.”

I wasn’t discouraged. The idea of getting in shape was deeply appealing to me, and Aerobics painted a wonderful picture of what it would be like to be physically fit. In any case, I knew my soul wanted this, and I intuitively felt that running would deliver rich rewards. And it did.

Running barefoot on the beach, while the sun crept toward the horizon and seagulls glided over the surf, my heart would soar. As the weeks and months passed, I found a new world opening within me, the world of the fit and healthy body. Often, while I ran, I felt a kinship in spirit with people who’d lived thousands of years ago, and had run for the pure joy of movement. During my best runs, my mind would become still, my heart would open, and I would find bliss.

Those fleeting moments of happiness were precious to me. I felt that they weren’t given merely to be enjoyed for a brief moment and then lightly forgotten, but that they were openings to a connection with a greater Self. I longed to be able to prolong them and experience them more often.

Ever the spiritual tinkerer, I tried to figure out the “system.” I thought that perhaps if I ran more or less the way I prayed and meditated, I might have those higher experiences more often.

I suppose it helped, some. But I was new to the spiritual path, and although I knew some good techniques of prayer and meditation, I was absolutely unaware of the spirit in which they need to be practiced. It would be years before I would take the first halting steps toward acquiring that spirit. Meanwhile, my experiments with “spiritual running” floundered. I continued to have moments of harmony and joy, but they were beyond my control.

Most mystical traditions hold practicality and objectivity in high regard. They urge their followers to challenge the truths of the scriptures — to “test the spirits,” as Christ said — and accept nothing on blind faith.

During my early years as a runner, I was frustrated by the endless discussions of training theory that I read in books and magazines. The science of training held little appeal at the time. I was more concerned with the inner quality that I felt I could achieve while running. Yet the longer I ran, the more I realized that even the best inner experiences are based on order and method.

I began to notice that when I “got it right” in my training, those elusive spiritual experiences came more often. I discovered that, just as I had suspected, there were practical, objective methods that made those experiences easier to achieve. But the nature of those methods would surprise me.

When I left school, I moved to Mill Valley, across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. In the winter of 1971, I saw a newspaper article about the 7.46-mile Bay to Breakers race, which was expected to draw – hold your breath! – as many as 2000 runners. (The 2006 race had 60,000.) I entered, finished in mid-pack, and had a wonderful time. At registration the day before the race, I picked up a copy of Runner’s World, which the publisher was selling out of the trunk of his car.

I was powerfully attracted to the magazine, because I felt that it spoke with the authentic voice of a runner. I would later realize that it was the voice of the editor, Joe Henderson, a wonderful man who viewed every runner as a friend. Joe respected all those who were working to “stretch their edges” through running, whether they were overweight joggers or Olympic champions.

I began volunteering my services to the magazine, translating articles from German and taking photos at races. One evening, I got a call from Bob Anderson, the publisher, who said he wanted to use a photo of mine on the cover. I thought my heart would explode! Bob said the print I’d sent was too small, so they would need the negative. I jumped in my 1972 VW Bug and drove the 70 miles to Mountain View, singing all the way.

I was still working at the post office, because none of the jobs for which I was qualified held the slightest appeal. Carrying the mail didn’t seem like my life’s work, but it did offer tremendous opportunities for fitness. Instead of driving door to door, I would load a leather satchel to overflowing and double-time it, challenging myself to deliver to as many homes as possible with each load. I calculated that, in an average day, I logged 12 miles of hard rambling. After work, three or four times a week, I would change into shorts and run eight miles out and back to San Anselmo. On Saturdays, I’d drive to San Francisco and run 14-17 miles in Golden Gate Park and around Lake Merced. I was a fit young fellow.

In early 1972, Bob Anderson invited me to a party at the home of Natalie Cullimore, who’d recently set a world record for running 100 miles on the roads (16:11:00). At the party, Bob told me how he’d started Runner’s World as a high school student in Kansas, printing it as a twice-yearly newsletter – called Distance Running News – on a $100 mimeograph machine in his bedroom. When Bob casually asked if I’d be interested in working for the magazine, I immediately said yes.

Runner’s World was housed in a tiny industrial space in Mountain View, on the San Francisco Peninsula. There were three full-time employees, Bob, Joe, and I. Bob’s wife filled in part time, and a shipping clerk came in after school.

The magazine had just 5,000 subscribers, and it was still printed in black and white. But it was growing rapidly, in sync with the jogging boom, which received a powerful boost from Frank Shorter’s marathon victory at the 1972 Olympics. I remember watching Shorter’s race on TV, then going for an exuberant celebratory run – and seeing many other runners doing the same.

Working at RW was a mixed blessing. On the positive side, there was Joe, the magazine’s true heart and soul. Joe’s cheerfulness and electric mind were a continual delight. On the other hand, no one at RW was the slightest bit interested in my peculiar spiritual slant on running.

Before I came to RW, running had been a personal quest. I had run to explore my limits and find my joy. Now, I was introduced to “scientific training” and “serious runners.”

There was so much to learn – so many theories about training, all of them propounded by people with vastly more experience than I. I began to question how I should run, and as a result, I lost touch with the simple instinct that had told me to find the sweet balance between effort and rest, and push the body slightly beyond.

My head teaming with half-baked ideas, I was forever unsure if I was doing the single, best, correct thing. Recalling my confusion, I’m reminded of Joe Miller, a colorful Sufi spiritual teacher in San Francisco during the Sixties. A favorite saying of Joe’s was: “You can get more stinkin’ from thinkin’ than ya can from drinkin’, but to FEEL is for REAL!”

After four years, I left Runner’s World and moved to Nevada City, California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. By this time, running had become a burden. It actually seemed to be sapping my energy and making me irritable. I slogged on for several years, but then gave it up altogether. I had enjoyed notably poor success locating the wellsprings of blissful running. Toward the end of the layoff, which would stretch to eight years, I discovered that I had a serious vitamin B deficiency, and that running had made the symptoms worse.

In the spring of 1988, while visiting friends in the Bay Area, I decided to take my camera to the Dipsea race, remembering how lovely it had been to photograph the runners on that gorgeous trail for Runner’s World.

I was, of course, completely deconditioned. I won’t describe my agonies as I waddled painfully up the hills. When I got home and showered, I stood before a full-length mirror and saw a fat, out-of-shape geezer. Clearly, it was long past time to start giving the body its due.

When I came back to running, my goal was the same as before: I wanted to learn to train well and to find inner, spiritual communion. But this time, starting over as a beginner, I had better tools.

In my first “career” as a runner, I had approached the search through my mind. I’d had a superabundance of ideas, but I hadn’t understood that running well is as much about the heart as it is about logic and reason. Now, I decided that I would take a fresh approach: whenever I needed answers, I would do my part, using my common sense and reason, but I would also consult the calm, intuitive voice of my heart and soul.

That was 19 years ago. Has the experiment succeeded? I’ll let you be the judge. In the next chapter, I’ll spill all the beans and reveal the “method” I discovered. And in the chapters that follow, I’ll describe the science and philosophy of intuitive running, and share stories of my experiences, as I unlocked some of the secrets of training well and finding joy within.