For years I had the privilege of interviewing many of the top runners of this and past generations. The one interview that is guaranteed to be filled with surprises, thoughtful nuance and outrageous proclamations is Olympic Gold Medalist Frank Shorter. Typically I’ll ask Frank what’s on him mind and 45 minutes later we stop.
Recently I asked Frank how it was that he maintained his enthusiasm for running for so many years. His reply was that he simply loved to run. Training and racing weren’t things he had to do but things he wanted to do. More than that, he said that he’d have been a runner all of his life even if he had never won a race. He loves to run.
What he said next was insightful and classic Frank Shorter. He opined that each of us has a natural motion that feels best. For him, that motion was his feet landing and pushing off the ground, his arms pumping in opposing directions, and the gentle lifting and lowering of his chest. What an elegant description running.
For many of us that description captures what it is about running that moves us as well. It moves us because it moves us. It moves some of us faster than others. It moves some of us farther than others. But, it moves us just the same.
It got me to thinking about the movements in my life that I enjoy. When I was young I loved to ride my bicycle. I know that lots of children like to ride but it was more than that for me. My bicycle was my way of being something that I wasn’t when I was off the bike. I could be a policeman, an explorer, or nothing more than a kid on a bike. The spinning wheels – with or without playing cards or balloons in them – were hypnotic and transcendent.
Riding a bicycle wasn’t exercise. It wasn’t cross-training. It wasn’t anything other than riding. It was an expression of who I was and an extension of who I was. I loved it.
I think that’s why I started my journey as an athlete on a bicycle. Even though it had been over 30 years since I had ridden the joy of being back in the saddle was powerful and immediate. I couldn’t ride very far and I certainly couldn’t ride very fast but I could ride and that’s all that mattered.
Running didn’t come as naturally for me. I didn’t hate it, but, I couldn’t say I loved it. Unlike Frank, the seamless motion of legs and feet and arms and chest eluded me. My motion was more abrupt and clumsy. Each foot strike was an intentional act, not a primal movement.
Putting together 5 minutes of running, or 5 continuous miles of running, was an accumulation of discrete elements. It was left foot, right foot, repeat. The transition between the landing phase and the push-off phase seemed more like the stuttering steps of a marionette than the fluid movement of an athlete. In spite of that, I was moving forward.
When new runners tell that they hate it, I understand. I would argue now that it isn’t the running that they hate, it’s the movement that they haven’t embraced. Running as an activity isn’t inherently good or bad. It can’t really be loved or hated. It is a mechanical reality. It is what it is.
But the movement, the motion, of running can be loved. It can be enticing to the point of almost being addictive. Once you’ve felt it – whatever it is – you want to feel it again. If you’re like most of us you’ll chase that feeling. You’ll run in the heat. You’ll run in the cold and rain. You’ll run when you shouldn’t and try to run when you can’t.
At least that what happened for me. Sometime, somewhere, on a trail or path or high school track I felt what Frank talked about. In that moment I went from being someone who runs to being a runner.
Waddle on, friends.