Lessons of an Elite: the Lorraine Moller Story

After I posted an article about Lorraine Moller’s book, On the Wings of Mercury last week, I received an email from Arch Jelley a contemporary of Arthur Lydiard who coached John Walker, the Olympic 1500 gold medalist (Montreal 1976) and former world mile record holder (3:49.4 – the first mile under 3:50).

Arch wrote:

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.

Jelley wasn’t coached by Arthur Lydiard, though the 22-milers he mentions were run on the same course as the outings of Lydiard’s famous proteges. But he was strongly influenced by Lydiard’s ideas, and they formed the core of his coaching of Walker.

I recently finished reading Lorraine Moller’s book, and it’s been much on my mind. I was eager to follow the career of an elite runner who trained by Lydiard’s system. And, though she doesn’t talk much about the details of her training, I wasn’t disappointed.

Elite athletes invariably seem to face formidable obstacles and setbacks, and in the process of overcoming them, they learn valuable lessons that we can all share. As I wrote last week, Moller’s book is candid about the struggles she faced, and her strengths and failings. From the beginning, she had enormous faith in her “star,” and believed that she would find success at the highest level.

As a child, she endured much suffering from a kidney infection that lasted for many years. At a point when the doctors had essentially given up hope and her family fully expected her to die, her mother secretly took her to an alternative healer who practiced color therapy. Amazingly, she immediately began to get better.

This early experience implanted a deep-set, lifelong distrust of the medical profession. In later years, whenever she was injured or sick, she took charge of her own healing. Rather than do the “logical” thing – unquestioningly following the advice of doctors – she would investigate the alternatives and do what felt right. And, however “illogical” the solution seemed, it always proved to be the right course.

A central theme of the book is how consistently she was successful when she trusted her intuition, and how often she failed when she allowed her rational side to take over. The battle between reason and feeling directly affected her running – for example, in the Olympic marathon in Barcelona, where she won bronze. Midway through the race, she was in the lead pack, when two runners broke away. Moller couldn’t decide whether to follow – it seemed much too early for a break. She was confused – “should I or shouldn’t I?” And, in the absence of a dominant feeling, the voice of her rational mind grew louder and held her back.

After the finish, she realized that she had sufficient strength to have gone with the break, and that she could have won silver or gold.

Dreams of what might have been – how often do we regret not going with a hunch. As Bill Rodgers famously said, “If you want to win a race, you have to go a little berserk.”

That is, follow your feelings, intuition, enthusiasm, and energy, and not let yourself be blinded or inhibited by the rational mind. In circumstances where the answer is energy and action, reason and logic can trap us in a paralyzing mental to-and-fro. The rational mind wants to examine all of the pros and cons before it acts.

Reason is very good at analyzing – at taking things apart. But energy, intuition, and feeling are better at synthesizing – at seeing the whole picture and directly perceiving a solution.

Moller tested her ideas about training and racing at the highest level. She won bronze in the 1500m and 3000m at the Commonwealth Games, and when she turned to the marathon in 1979, she won her first eight races, including Boston in 1984 and Osaka three times straight. She ran in four Olympic marathons, the last in Atlanta in 1996, at 37. As a master’s runner, she was ranked number 1 in the world in 1995 and 1996.

Moller now lives in Boulder, Colorado with her husband and daughter Jasmine, to whom she gave birth at 45. On the side, she helps spread Arthur Lydiard’s training philosophy through her work with the Lydiard Foundation. (There are wonderful articles on the Foundation website – for example, a brief 1970 Runner’s World interview with Lydiard.)

In a review of her book, the Boston Globe called it “vivid and unrestrained.” Moller went to the edge with her running, and in the process she learned a great deal about herself, about the balance of reason and feeling, and about life.

“I always wanted to figure out how things work,” she said, “and being an athlete is a wonderful way of exploring that connection, the relation between my emotional and running life.”

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