Adapt and Survive — the Happy Runner’s Mantra

What are the laws of running? Are there fixed “rules” that can always tell us how to train?

“There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.”

Thank you, Professor Einstein.

As I trot down a sunny hill behind the Stanford campus, I’m trying to get a sense of what I should do next. Should I head straight home? Or loop over to Stanford Avenue for a few extra miles?

colored pills labeled with positive words
The best prescription for great running is a flexible attitude.

Behind the appearance of things, I have faith that there’s an order that, if I could but perceive its shape, would give me all the guidance I will ever need.

Neuropsychologists tell us that logic and reason are unreliable, unless they’re balanced by feeling. People with brain injuries that impair their ability to feel make terrible decisions, even though their reasoning powers are intact. They can spend hours dithering over a simple decision such as whether to go to the supermarket.

Should I run fast or long? Always, there are all manner of good, sound, logical reasons for doing either. Too often, though, when I opt for one of these good, sensible choices, I realize too late that it was the wrong one.

It would really help me to have an x-ray scope that would show me the order lying behind the appearance.

The best choice changes from one run to the next. What’s the right thing to do? It depends on a gazillion factors that the rational mind can’t grasp, and that would overwhelm it, if it could. We are complex creatures inhabiting a complex environment. And we are whole beings. The rational mind, with its tiny dissecting knives, is too minutely focused, and too unaware of the big picture.

Trying to depend on logic and reason to sort out our answers we need as runners, we can spend hours – days – weeks – analyzing our diet, sleep patterns, training, hydration, medication, injuries, fitness, recovery, races, the advice of running coaches, and the weather.

But, for all that, of course, deciding how to run isn’t that big a deal.

If we’re smart, we’ll put off making any decisions until after we’re thoroughly warmed up. Somewhere along the way, the body wakes up and realizes that, aha! – this guy is going to make me run today. So I’d better let him know what I can do safely and enjoyably.

In contemplating the best choice of distance and speed, one option usually evokes a stronger feeling of enthusiasm than the others.

All we need to do is still the restless mind and tune in to that feeling. I can’t tell you how reliably this works for me. I’m approaching the last bend on the trail around the lake on the Stanford campus, and I face a decision. Should I head back to the car? Or should I head into the hills? Or maybe I can shoot down Foothill Boulevard and do some brisk hill accelerations.

The answer comes effortlessly. In fact, I never have to “figure it out” with my rational mind.

I hold the choices, one at a time, up to a still, dispassionate part of my awareness. And I always get the right answer.

It comes as the aforementioned subtle feeling of enthusiasm. The thought of zipping down Foothill seems lighter, more open and free. And when I follow my enthusiasm, I always feel wonderful at the finish.

Some days, the only thought that evokes enthusiasm is to head straight back to the car. When that’s the case, I’m never disappointed, or tempted to think, “What a wasted run!” When I follow my intuition, I can be sure that two positive things will happen. I won’t feel burned out at the finish. And I’ll be able to run harder in a day or two.

It’s why I’ve fallen into a habit of initiating the decision-making process at the start of the run.

Long ago, when I was running marathons and ultras, I quickly learned that every race was a crapshoot. I could never tell, at the start, what experiences might await me, once I was 18 or 35 miles into the race.

The only factor I could control was my attitude. If went into the race with rigid expectations and wistful hopes, of, say,, finishing within a certain time, I was too often disappointed. I decided that the best strategy was to stay flexible. I would be optimistic, enthusiastic, but adaptable.

Late in a difficult 50-mile race, I arrived at an aid station and found that my personal fuels hadn’t been delivered. A flash of anger shot through me. I hadn’t come 40 miles for this! But I realized that the well-meaning aid-station volunteers were embarrassed, and i didn’t want to add to their pain. So I grabbed a handful of goodies from the aid table and cheerfully hollered, “Adapt and survive!” and set off down the trail.

Adapt and survive. Hold no expectations. Enjoy the moment, no matter what it brings. Savor it and do your best.

I let my appetite get ahead of my brain at breakfast the other day. When I started my run four hours later, there was still an undigested bowling ball in my stomach.

I thought, “I’ll run slowly and enjoy it as best I can, and see what happens.” Adapt and survive.

You can guess the sequel. I had a very decent run.

After an hour, I turned back toward the finish, about 2-3 miles away. The bowling ball was gone, and tingles of enthusiasm were enticing me to do some fast accelerations.

Those 10-15-second bursts were fun and energizing. Then I did a favorite thing – uphill sprints on the pedestrian ramp at the softball stadium. I’d invested many months of hill bounding, deadlifts, and skipping exercises. My legs were tireless, and sweet feelings coursed through me as I imbibed my post-run recovery smoothie.

Nowadays, I’m starting every run in survival mode. “I’ll just start out slowly and see what develops. Maybe it will be a slow jog. I don’t care. Or maybe something else will happen.”

It’s an optimistic way to run. Whether my body wants to go blazing along or just jog, it’s doesn’t matter. Doing whatever needs to be done, with enthusiasm, makes me a happy runner.

2 thoughts on “Adapt and Survive — the Happy Runner’s Mantra”

  1. Something I’ve noticed from a number of large decisions in my life is that they felt rather less like deliberate decisions than like discoveries. They came with a sense of “oh! there it is!” rather than “well, based on my logical analysis of the data…” or even “I feel like doing such and such….” Both the reason and feeling were probably involved somewhere, but the actual decision came from a different level.

    I also think there’s more of that going on at the day-to-day level than I’ve usually been aware of in the past. It’s interesting to watch. Approaching questions or decisions with a sense of curiosity, rather than expectation, seems to help.

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