The Art of Running, the Law of Running

Not long after I went to work at Runner’s World in 1972, the publisher invited me to a party at his home. Several top distance runners of the day were present, and I was struck by what hard guys they were. At the time I wondered, as I still do, if being a successful runner means you have to be a macho dude.

No doubt, the top guys have to be tough. You don’t run a sub-13:00 5000 meters, sub-4:00 mile, or sub-2:09 marathon without living a disciplined life. As Bob Kennedy said, it takes carving out of your life everything that might interfere with reaching your goal.

I’ve never met Bob Kennedy, though I did say hello to him when I jogged past in the eucalyptus woods at Stanford. And maybe I’m imagining it, but I thought I detected, in his cheerful, “Hello there,” the vibration of a genuinely nice guy.

I’ve never met Gabe Jennings, either, but I did pass him in the Stanford hills. He was, of course, going the other way. And when I shouted, “Go Gabe!” again, I felt a vibe of a warm heart in return.

I’ve never met Deena Kastor or Haile Gebrselassie or Paula Radcliffe or Ryan Hall. But I’ve watched video interviews of these champions, and they seem like people with decent hearts. (I did pass Sara twice on the Stanford campus, and picked up a truly clean vibe from her.)

Maybe I’m puffing-up these runners’ auras from a sense of hero worship or wishful thinking. But maybe not.

Years ago, when I was returning to distance running, I whiled away the time during long runs composing my Every Runner’s Friend list. In January every year, I would award an imaginary trophy to the runners who had inspired me by their expansive behavior during the preceding year. They were folks like marathoner Mark Plaatjes (a generous spirit, if ever there was one) and ultrarunner Ann Trason, whom I loved (but never met), and who inspired me by her eagerness to help and encourage other, less talented runners.

A handful of runners were on my Every Runner’s Friend Lifetime Hall of Inspiration list. At the top of the list, for reasons that will be immediately obvious to anyone who knows him, was Joe Henderson. Joe has done more for running, and for individual runners, than anyone I’ve met. I’ve had the opportunity to run with Joe for long stretches, and I can tell you it’s an experience that leaves you feeling good at the end. Joe exudes positive, upbeat, encouraging vibrations.

Hard guys? All of the good guys at the top have inner toughness, but they all have good hearts, too.

At the library last weekend, I discovered a wonderful seven-disk video set, The History of Soccer. I’ve never played soccer, and I’m not a fan of the game, but something drew me to take it home. Aside from spectacular game footage, fascinating interviews with former players (the oldest age 91), and scenery of foreign lands, the thing that struck me most powerfully was the distinction that soccer culture draws between the “Game of Art” and the “Game of Results.”

It’s obvious from the terms what’s being referred to. For many years in Brazil, the tone of play was set by stars like Pelé, who played the Game of Art, with incredible success. It’s said that the Brazilian “beautiful game” derives also from capoeira, the native martial art that incorporates elements of dance.

Less known is that earlier in the 20th century, the international teams from Uruguay and Argentina established even better records than Brazil would, and both countries also thrived on the Game of Art. One of the first African teams to do well at the World Cup, Cameroon, would also showcase the Game of Art.

It’s striking what happened when three of those countries, Argentina, Brazil, and Cameroon, switched to the Game of Results. As Brazil became successful, the European professional league teams began to lure the best players away with offers of big money. Desperate to keep succeeding, the Brazilian team resorted to violent tactics designed to disrupt the competition and allow them to win at all costs. And they failed miserably. Brazil quickly descended to a second-rate power, not because its pool of talent was depleted, but because negativity kills energy and never cancels a positive.

The same thing happened, earlier on, to Argentina. Argentina has a large Italian population and many of the early Argentine stars were of Italian descent. As soon as Argentina began to do well internationally, the Italian professional teams started hiring the stars away. Like Brazil, Argentina panicked and resorted to the Game of Results, with poor results. The fans lost interest, players grew disillusioned, sponsors were turned off, and the media expressed their disgust. Soon, Argentina was no longer a world power.

Running a 5K or a marathon competitively, as opposed to jogging it as a social fun-run, requires a seriousness of purpose and a focus on results. But it’s funny how often people who are well-rounded in all dimensions of their being tend to do well. Studies by researchers at Heartmath Institute show that the heart can work harder when we cultivate positive feelings, than when we think dark, contractive thoughts of beating-down other people in order to win glory for ourselves. So it may not hinder people like Bob Kennedy and Paula Radcliffe in their climb to the top that they happen to be good guys.

Years ago, I read a wonderful book, Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity. The author, Bruce Bawer, points out how the fundamentalists love to quote Bible passages that seem to portray God as angry and spiteful, while blatantly ignoring Christ’s central message of love, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding. Bawer distinguishes between what he calls the “Church of Law” and the “Church of Love.”

These “churches” are reflected in our individual lives. Looking back, I can see times when I’ve joined the Church of Law. And I see that every time I did something that I cringe to remember, it was because I lacked love. Every time. And conversely, everything I’ve ever done that I am proud of, I did as a member of the Church of Love.

Human history is the story of the struggle between these two urges. Every good book, movie, or play is essentially about these issues. In my running, I find that I always make the best progress, and have the best time, when I run with a heart attuned to universal currents of love. My worst runs are those where I forget the Church of Love, where I’m too hard on myself, or abuse my body by going too fast or far. Fortunately, those mistakes are increasingly rare, because I know that a positive always trumps a negative, every time. When I play the Game of Art, I have more fun, and the results come, too.

3 thoughts on “The Art of Running, the Law of Running”

  1. Very interesting and insightful post. I often think about different dichotomies that we face as runners and people and I think you’ve hit upon a very interesting one.

    I’ve had the pleasure to run with Meb Keflezighi, Jon Rankin, and a number of other successful runners. They absolutely embody your notion of the Church of Love.

    I hope to think a little more and post on this topic soon. Thanks for writing this.

    P.S. I found your site through the blog feed on my fan lens on Haile Gebrselassie at Another runner who embodies the Church of Love approach to life.

    (Bryan – There’s a woman at the local Fry’s whose last name is Gebrselassie. I asked if the Great One was her brother. She said no. I think she was surprised by the feeling in my voice – HG is high on my Every Runner’s Friend list. Thanks for the kind words. – George)

  2. No one has run a _sub 12 min. 5000_…..

    Ouch! Corrected: sub-13! Thanks for the heads-up. – George

  3. Nice blog…

    The Game of Art reminds me of an old piece by George Leonard called “Did OJ Dance”. It was about the different way that many black people view sports as opposed to some whites.

    Never mind the scoreboard or the stats…..Did OJ Dance?


    (Al: I think of Michael Jordan. In Playing For Keeps, his really wonderful book on Jordan, David Halberstam quotes Jordan’s college roommate who recalled that MJ was joyful about everything: games, practice, and on and on. The roommate – I forget his name – knew from that, that Jordan would one day be a great player. Also: the soccer DVD on Cameroon dwelt on their joyful play during the World Cup, which took them higher than an African team had ever gone before. The flip side is that it got a bit too emotional, and the loss of control contributed to their elimination. Calm joy, I guess. – George)

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