2011-05-21

The Marathon: Part III - The Philosophy

I believe the most important part of running, like everything else I'm interested in, is the underlying philosophy of the thing. Running isn't just about strapping on some neon clothing and raising money for breast cancer. Running is a way to explore yourself and your health on a level that's difficult to reach via other activities.

Successful running, then, involves understanding the underlying themes and applying them as you work.

No One Gets Tendonitis Running From Man-Eating Lions
There's no such thing as a "naturally gifted runner." Wait, correction: We are all naturally gifted runners. Some of us just don't know it yet.

Why do I say this? Well, humans originated on the Serengeti plains, where we have been hunting and gathering for eons. To survive there, you have to know how to run, and run well. Otherwise, you might get eaten by a man-eating lion (or suffer some comparable fate).

From there, mankind migrated outward: to the Middle East, Europe, South Asia, East Asia, across the Bering Straight to the North American Arctic Circle, and then down to the southern tip of Argentina. In each and every culture from the African plains to the Inca Roads, humans have excelled at running great distances at high speeds.

More to the point: You cannot claim that "people like you" "weren't meant to run." You were. It's in your genes. Some of you might suggest that running hurts you more than it hurts most other people. Every time you go out jogging, you suffer uncontrollable spasms of pain the likes of which I - as a "naturally gifted runner" - surely know nothing about.

But here's a question: Do you honestly think it would be so painful to run from a man-eating lion chasing you across the Serengeti? Of course not, and there is a good reason why. But to understand it, we have to first dispel a horrible idea.

The Idea of the Perpetual Beginner
The commercial "running industry," consisting of shoe sellers, magazines, book publishers, and so forth, have made good inroads promoting running as an activity to people from all walks of life. You can go anywhere and discover all kinds of information about how to be a beginner. For many of you, you stop there. I'm here to encourage you to take strides (pun intended) toward moving from a beginner to an intermediate runner.

There is no need to be a competitive runner. Most people don't have the time or desire to make it to that level. But there are a couple of important truths about running. The first is that running is more fun when you run faster. (Notice I said "faster," not "fast." In other words, whatever is "fast" for you is also "more fun" for you. I'm not talking about universal, cardinal values of speed here.)

The second is that running is an inherently safe activity. You should never suffer running-related injuries. If you do, you have either fallen down or you're running with bad form.

The problem with the Idea of the Perpetual Beginner is that new runners are never taught good running form. As a result, they are at constant risk of injury. They also never get to a point where they are running fast enough for running to become genuinely entertaining.

Therefore, It All Starts With Good Form
Back to the man-eating lion. No one "jogs" from a man-eating lion. No one "walk/runs" from a man-eating lion. When faced with a serious threat, the human body instinctively adopts a safe, efficient, natural, and speedy running gait.

In a future installment, I'll cover tips on how to improve your form, so that you can run safely and rapidly. For now, I'd simply like to ask that you stop jogging and stop walk/running altogether. These activities perpetuate your status as an inexperienced novice and obliterate your running form. You will hate running at best, and get seriously injured at worse.

Every time you get out and run, imagine that you are coursing through the winding paths of a Mayan jungle to deliver an important message, or barreling across an African plain to reach your camp before nightfall. Focus far off into the distance, relax your shoulders and your ankles, and let your running instinct take over.

This is key to safe, happy running.

Mind Over Matter
From there, the only other thing you need is determination. When you get out there and start training tomorrow, you are going to encounter shortness of breath, burning lungs and muscles, hot sun, inclement weather, traffic exhaust, myriad distractions, and thousands of other unpleasantries.

When you do, focus deep into your solar plexus as you tell yourself over and over: Mind over matter.

The moment you feel you cannot press on any longer, repeat this mantra for a few minutes. The more your body screams and begs you to stop, the more consistently you must repeat yourself. You will find after a few short minutes that the desire to stop passes, like a brief fear in the middle of the night. You'll be running a bit faster, you'll laugh to yourself at the futile objections raised by your more fearful self, and carry on in confidence.

The difference between a true beginner and an experienced runner is how much control you have when your body starts to object to the conditions in which you've placed it. Experience means conquering your fears and calmly learning to press onward.

In that sense, running shares a common bond with Buddhist meditation. This is why I have said many times that, to me, running is a prayer. It is an opportunity to overcome your internal fears and objections, accept your surroundings as they are at that moment, accept who you are and what you're doing, and come out that experience with tranquility, serenity, and courage.

Once you've achieved that, there's nothing that can stop you; not in running, not in life.

Up Next: Tips for tomorrow's workout - the first in our journey to Montreal.