Running and the Good Life

As I’ve mentioned, I like to drive to San Francisco to run. I park by the Bay and run across the Golden Gate Bridge.

The drive to the City takes me past Lake Merced, a popular venue with a five-mile trail that circles the lake. As I drive by, I’m struck by the variety of running styles. A very few are the “real deal” – they’re the runners with antelope genes, soaring over the ground effortlessly at six-minute pace.

It takes all kinds. Increased joy comes by honoring our own nature as we explore our edges.
It takes all kinds. Increased joy comes by honoring our nature as we explore our edges.

The rest span a spectrum of the runner’s art – from shuffling eighty-somethings to seven-year-olds out running on their own. (What’s their deal? I’d love to hear their stories.)

There are as many breeds of runners as there are people.

I’m delighted when I read about runners who find success in highly individual ways.

Take Jeanne Daprano. Not long after turning 75, Jeanne set world records at 400m (1:20.50) and 800m (3:07.35).

The subject of an interesting Running Times profile, Jeanne runs – you might want to sit down for this – just 10 miles a week! But she supplements her running with core work and strength training.

(Digression: Why is it that triathletes and other cross-trainers tend to do very well in running? I’m thinking specifically of Lukas Verzbicas, the triathlon age-group world champion who set the national high school record in the 2-mile (8:29.46). A week later, Lukas became the fifth U.S. high school runner to break 4 minutes in the mile.)

Okay, back to runners who train strangely – well, let’s say “uniquely.”

Marie-Louise Michelsohn, another 70-74 age group ace, doubles Jeanne Daprano’s mileage, logging a studpendous 20-25 miles per week. Michelsohn broke the W70-74 WR in the 10,000m by 31 seconds, in 46:38.50.

Michelsohn doesn’t cross-train, but as her Running Times profile notes, she alternates very hard track work with very easy 30-minute recovery runs.

What fascinates me about these runners is that they’re succeeding by doing not much of what anyone with an ounce of sense would advise, but by following own star. They do what fuels their enthusiasm just feels right.

At the other end of the spectrum, we find runners succeed following a path that initially seems very different.

Take the Hanson Brooks stable of elites. Desiree Davila, Neely Spence, and the other Brooks aces train by the principles laid down by Arthur Lydiard in the 1950s. Lydiard identified the factors that make running both fun and successful. His system has enough flex so that each runner can adjust it to his daily needs.

What emerges from the training of these two apparently very different groups? I think it’s the need to make training individual.

Last Saturday, I attended a workshop by Nitai Deranja, founder of a very successful education system with nine schools worldwide.

In the Living Wisdom Schools, the teachers’ believe it’s important to get to know the individual child in a deep and comprehensive way, so they can steer each student to their own next step in learning. The schools are very successful – graduates score consistently above average on national tests of academic achievement are accepted by top private high schools. Many end up at elite universities.

The teachers don’t view the kids as disembodied brains, as so many schools now do. They’re acutely aware that the child’s feelings, will, body, and soul are all highly individual, and that these non-mental factors have a huge impact on the child’s ability to learn.

Over the schools’ 40-year history, they’ve discovered that if you recognize and nurture all aspects of the child, and if you understand them as individuals and challenge them appropriately, they become happy, confident kids who love to learn.

Okay, I’ve digressed again. The point is that in every field including running, we need to understand ourselves as whole persons. School children aren’t just brains with legs, and neither are runners. School is about a great deal more than stuffing -forgotten facts down kids’s throats. And running isn’t only about doing the right thing for our legs, cardiovascular system, and lungs.

When we tend our whole, unique selves – whether by highly unusual training or with the help of a proven system – we vastly improve the chances of having fun and enjoying success.

I find it somehow comforting that Marie Louise Michelsohn and Jeanne Daprano have succeeded with training that, let’s face it, seems initially weird.

It makes me smile. I find, like them, that when I train hard but honor the broader realities of my life – my work schedule, health, and social and spiritual life – I enjoy myself a lot more, and I improve.

I’ll tell you this – if you’re a youngster under 50, you’ve got a lot to look forward to. It’s wonderful to be over seventy and still be able to kick up your heels and flat-out run. The difference, at this age, is that you can only do it occasionally. So you’ve pretty much got to come up with your own weird training plan.

The hard runs are great – it’s lovely to jog for 30 or 40 minutes, and then run hard up the long ramp of the softball stadium several times with a five-minute rest between. I find it puts the “pop” back in these old legs. But it’s also fun to throttle back and jog by the Bay and enjoy the scenery and shorebirds.

Running should be colorful – it should never be a dull gray. Watch out for those who would impose a dry, impersonal system on you, with regard for your individual abilities and needs.

Be vigilant against those, also, who would judge you for doing non-standard training – say, running only 10 miles a week, cross-training, pool-running, swimming, bicycling, or playing soccer.

There’s no single best way to train. The “best” system changes daily, and what’s best for you may be best for no other runner.

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