Pedal to the Metal

Running is a simple sport. Perhaps that’s why it’s so popular. Anyone can put on shoes and slide out the door. Unlike other sports, you don’t have to be big, fast, graceful, or have good hand-eye coordination.

There are as many styles of running as there are runners. And that’s good. Because human beings come in a dizzying array of colors, shapes, and sizes.

There’s a guy who runs through our neighborhood on his way to work every day. He has long, shaggy gray hair, and he wears shirts with collars, hiking shorts, and–horrors!–dress socks. I say, more power to him.

The way we run says a lot about us.

It’s also reflected in our training. In the mid-nineties, I taught a running workshop at the Expanding Light retreat. One of the guests was from Reno, Nevada. She was a real fireball, a person of big, sparky energy. Although she’d only been running for a few months, she wanted to train hard. She loved speed, and there was no way she’d have been happy following a gentle, Jeff Galloway-type program for beginners.

Recognizing this, I urged her to “do the numbers.” Her goal was to run a fast 5K. I recommended that she go to the track once a week, warm up, and do 400-meter and 800-meter repeats. She’d soon find out how fast she could run a 5K. On non-speedy days, she could start slowly, and gradually put the pedal to the metal.

I wouldn’t have given the same advice to many runners. This woman had run hard for several months without getting injured. She’d proved that her body could handle fast training. Training hard was who she was. (Perhaps not surprising, her vehicle of choice was a gorgeous Harley.)

I recently wrote about Yannick Djouadi, a French runner who won the 2006 World Championship 100K. Djouadi trains hard–21 miles at 5:41 pace is routine. I discussed other champions who’ve train hard successfully. And I asked if we ordinary mortals should try to do the same. After all, isn’t it logical? The body learns to do what we make it do. To race fast, you’ve got to train hard.

But we don’t get stronger by ignoring what we are. Like our personalities, our bodies vary tremendously. Some thrive on hard training, some don’t.

Talented runners are a different breed. During a long run near the Stanford campus, I saw a young woman runner two blocks away. She was jogging in place as she waited for a stoplight, and I knew instantly that she was the “real deal.” She had the build, the thin upper body and long legs of a thoroughbred, and something in her aura that told me she was special. As I drew closer, I saw that it was Arianna Lambie, a six-time All-American and member of two NCAA national champion Stanford cross-country teams.

You’ve either got that kind of talent, or you don’t. Among the hundreds of runners who train at a big park near our home, there’s a young African who always seems to be tearing along at sub-6:00 pace. He’s so far out of my league that, when I see him fly past breathing normally, I can’t even muster feelings of envy.

I once heard maturity defined as the ability to accept reality as it is, and not as we would like it to be.

Can we train hard? One way to find out is to give it a shot and let Nature herself tell us. If it’s healthy for us to go full-bore all the time, we’ll be rewarded with feelings of expansion and joy. But if it isn’t, we’ll soon feel physically contracted and emotionally depressed. Maturity is the ability to accept nature’s answer gracefully.

One champion who knows about accepting reality is legendary ultramarathoner Eric Clifton. In the Sep/Oct 2004 issue of Marathon and Beyond, he described how he got lost midway through the 1989 Vermont 100. (I found Eric’s words on a runner’s personal Web site.)

Most surprising to me was the discovery that I didn’t care, not about being off for 10 minutes or about possibly losing the lead. I was so relaxed and was enjoying the day and the effort so much that I knew then that the competition was like the icing on the cake. The cake was the simple joy that running quickly, freely, and easily can bring. I was euphoric. I felt in touch with myself and the world and connected to everything.

Later in the same race, Clifton got lost again.

I knew I had to run back to the last marker I had seen three miles back (I measured it later). Naturally, the locals knew where they were, and I was amazed to discover that I also knew where I was. I was right here, in the present. Where the course was, was another story. It was just so cool to be out running. Even if I was off course, I was still running well, albeit a little more slowly, back up the hill.

That is when I felt in my heart the two primary reasons why I run: I run to exceed my perceived limits, to do better than I think I can. Even more important, I learned to run without fear and with bliss. Because I had run an extra six miles, if I finished the race I would have run more than 100 miles. Even better, I discovered the joy of running with ease at a seemingly unstoppable fast pace. It really was all good.

In the Marathon and Beyond article, Clifton expressed his philosophy:

Sometimes, when not that fit or when I felt I needed to be competitive because much was at stake, or even when I let a fear of failure seep in, I would regress and try to run a “smart,” conservative race. All, 100 percent, resulted in dismal races — dismal times, dismal places (if I finished), and dismal feelings. Those races were not true to my nature. Sure, a lot of races I started hard in, I died, but the placing or finish is not what is important to me. My raison d’etre for running is to run from my heart, and I have never regretted a race where that is what I did. I have never had a magical race by pacing myself. A run doesn’t even need to be a race to be magical. The excitement and competition appear to help, but mystical events can happen at any time. The only common factor in all my special runs is effort. They are all fast for me. The key is not in making myself run hard but in letting myself run hard, completely releasing the heart and soul to go. Who are the legs and feet to get in the way of the spirit?

The moral? Eric Clifton said it well. Run true to your nature, and you’re bound to find joy.