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Tap the athlete

This is an excerpt from Timeless Running Wisdom by Richard Benyo.

Running isn't like most other activities. Do it, then do it some more, and you can become decent at it. Do it a lot more, and you can probably become above average.

But, you may ask, what kind of an athlete could I possibly have trapped inside of me?

Consider the fact that there are blind runners (some of whom can run a marathon in under 3 hours), runners who are amputees (one gal not long ago ran a marathon in 3:05 as a below-the-knee amputee), runners with diabetes (who greatly benefit in controlling their disease through exercise), 85-year-old runners, and people who used to be runners who take it up again later in life who are changed forever by the rediscovery of how simple yet profound the act of running is.

This is about walking out the door and meeting your athlete. Go out there and spend some quality time with your new best friend, the athlete that was trapped inside you, the primitive eons-old runner who wants out, the essential runner ready and eager to reveal aspects of yourself that have long been repressed.

Millions of runners ply the world's highways and byways. They weren't always runners, except in the relatively rare instance in which they ran track and field or cross-country during their school days and continued to do so after graduation. Go to any local 5K race and hang around after the race is over and talk to a group of the runners. Ask them how they got into running. If there are eight people there, seven of them will reveal that they weren't athletes in high school. In each case they will be happy to confirm two things:

  1. I never imagined that I was a runner until I became one.
  2. I'm more comfortable with myself now that I'm a runner than I've ever been in my life.

The nice thing about running is that the runner is always there, patiently waiting to be released. There isn't a predetermined starting date or a firm expiration date.

One of the easiest ways to release the athletic beast inside and to keep it loose is to set running goals, both short term and long term. It's fine on occasion to just run around for the sake of basic movement, but to loosen the athlete, goals are necessary, both as a motivational factor (to get you out the door on days you'd rather not go) and as a testing factor (testing just how good you can be with a requisite amount of training).

Setting goals is a process that runs parallel with the personalities of most people who get involved in running, and it is a way of laying out yardsticks end-to-end toward reaching a long-term goal. You may start with modest goals and grow from there. You may be surprised at how motivating reaching goals can be. Set a short-term goal and achieve it, and you will be doubly motivated to strive for the intermediate goal, and from there to the long-term goal.

One of the most impressive runners I've ever met, and a guy who really knows goals, is John Keston, who holds numerous age-group world records. He didn't begin running until he was 55 and, like many other people, he started running to whip himself into better shape (in his case, to play squash). He was a Shakespearean actor and professional singer, with a runner lurking inside him, just as one lurks inside all of us.

John began entering 10K races as a lark and found that, for his age, he was pretty good. Through dedication and hard work he became ever better and began setting records for his age. An aspect to consider with running, at least if you wish to race, is competition—against other runners and against yourself. Age-group competition occurs within the larger race; beyond that is competition against yourself, which involves setting PRs (personal records), trying to run faster and better than you did last week.

But getting back to John Keston and his fully emerged runner: John is doubly impressive because on a somewhat regular basis (like, once every five years or so), he has been forced to reinvent his runner as a result of a nonrunning accident (such as riding a bike over railroad tracks and breaking his hip to the point that it required a metal plate) that puts him on the disabled list for months at a time. Each time he has eased back into running and reemerged as good as ever and sometimes even better. He has essentially been reborn on a regular basis.

Even those with decades of experience can be reborn. Kathrine Switzer, one of the pioneers of women's running, twice the head of the Avon running program and the author of Marathon Woman, related this surprising and refreshing development in her own search for the inner athlete:

When people would say to me, “I used to run, I don't anymore. I should get back to it. I always liked it,” I used to be amazed. How on earth could you like running and not do it?

Now, after running for 50 years, I think I understand a little better. The athlete within is always there; just finding it is often challenging.

I never stopped running, and still define myself first as an athlete, but over the last 10 years I was spending less and less time actually doing it. Work, travel, fatigue, higher priorities—you know the story—all resulted in my running less. Consequently, I got slower, put on weight for the first time in my life, and was less confident of my physical capability. Well, hell, I was 60, I told myself. Of course I had less capability!

After running 35 marathons, it became more fascinating to do the TV commentary of the race. After thousands of miles of Sunday-morning long runs, using that time to write another book was more challenging to me. There was still joy and great creativity in my daily run, but it wasn't compelling enough to make me push myself.

And then a funny thing happened. Fascinating events began popping up that didn't exist even a decade ago. Like running on a game reserve in Kenya, or running three races in three days in Bermuda, or running over a mountain range over rough tracks and through rivers in New Zealand. I found myself wishing I could do them, and annoyed at not being 28 anymore. Back then, I only had to pull on my shoes and I was there. And now what? Was the old athlete somewhere inside me even capable of trying?

And then another funny thing happened. I was meeting women who were 65 and 70 years old who had just started running and were doing these events. Older than me! Way older than me! That was it; if they could do it, I could, too. For years I had the reputation for motivating others, and now, presto! They were motivating me. It's the truth: Finding the athlete inside happens quickly when you are inspired or when your competitive hackles are raised. The athlete was there inside raring to go; it just needed a goal to give me the focus.

The ongoing process has been funny, wistful, time-consuming, and extremely enlightening. Although the outcome has yet to be determined, I can say for certain that it is humbling to have to work so hard again; it is bewildering to still feel inside how I felt at 28 but how incapable I am of being anything but 63, how hilarious (you have to laugh) it is to have to spend twice as much time training now as I did then because it takes me twice as long to cover the same distance and because I need a nap afterward. But it is thrilling in the extreme to find that old lioness getting stronger again; perhaps a bit wobbly and flea-bitten but still roaring.

The athlete lurks in all of us. It is our human nature honed over tens of thousands of years. It is up to us to open the cage and let it loose. Even if it goes on hiatus, remember that it can still be revived and again released into the wild.

More Excerpts From Timeless Running Wisdom



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