(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
April 2001 (retitled in the magazine). Two of the best reasons to run have little to do with staying in shape or with training to race. These attractions are thinking and talking.
They aren’t opposites but companions. Team running lets you talk freely with friends, while solo running allows a heart-to-heart talk with yourself. Both opportunities are scarce in a world long on loud noises and short on calm voices.
Running alone with my thoughts is my choice most days. This hour a day is all mine – time away from the phone, radio and computer that share my office, time to clear away the mental clutter so the good thoughts can bubble up. I don’t carry pen and pad, but usually come back from run with ideas begging to be captured on paper.
George Sheehan, one of the sport’s all-time great writers, said he did his best “writing” away from his desk – while running. He treasured the solitary times “when I’ve been able to withdraw from the world and be inside myself. Such moments can open doors impervious to force or guile.”
Talk with runners fills the rest of my day, so I feel little need to run with them. If I worked outside the sport, I’d need to talk my way into a partnership or group.
Something in the act of running – the rhythm, the sweat, the common purpose, the stripping of outer roles and inner restraints – loosens up one set of muscles above all others: those that operate the jaws. Listen in on two or more runners talking, and you’ll never again believe that long-distance runners are a lonely breed.
Dr. Sheehan balanced aloneness with togetherness. He once wrote that talking on the run “frees me from the polysyllabic jargon of my profession, removes me from the kind of talk which aims at concealing rather than revealing what is in my heart.
“For me no time passes faster than when running with a companion. An hour of conversation on the run is one of the quickest and most satisfying hours ever spent.”
Two of the best reasons for running, according to George, are contemplation and conversation. His third reason: competition, which he defined not as competing against others but joining them to bring out better work than we could ever do alone.
A race is as different from a daily run as a private chat is from a public lecture. Conversing is easy, as taking a casual run is. Speaking before a group is as hard – and as fearsome – as racing, but the audience brings out the speaker’s best words just as a race crowd brings out the best runs.
I’ve always enjoyed talking casually with almost anyone about almost anything. But the prospect of speaking in public used to tongue-tie me with fear. I went through college hiding behind the tallest student in class to avoid being called on to comment.
Soon after graduation I was forced to take the stage at running events and later was doing it voluntarily. Now I look forward to facing friendly crowds. The butterflies in my belly are now an expected and accepted part of the warmup, as they are before any race.
Even George Sheehan, perhaps the most skilled speaker this sport has known, paced and stewed before his lectures. Once onstage he spoke calmly and beautifully.
No hour passed faster than one at a Sheehan talk, and he left the listeners wanting more. They clustered around him for another hour before letting him leave the hall.
He drew his largest crowds and longest ovations at the Boston Marathon. One year there, after George had signed his last book and answered his last question, we left the room together.
“That was quite a show,” I said. He agreed that it was, but added, “at times like this I have to remind myself that a few blocks from here I’m just another skinny Irishman.”
I don’t have to go even that far to look like just another gnome in glasses. Running talk tells me I’m more than that.
Talking with the people who know you best and care about you most – and sometimes just having a good talk with yourself – tells you who you really are. No time is better spent.
2018 Update. Little did I know at this writing how much social life was about to change. Talking directly with runners would grow enormously as I started teaching university running classes, which would lead to coaching marathon and half-marathon teams. Those all continue today, and our “alumni association” numbers more than 1000.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]