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Book Review: Runners on Running by Rich Elliott

– Derek M. Hansen –

As a track and field athlete, I always ran in the sprint races or competed in the jumping events. In college, a 200 meter sprint race was an eternity for me even though I ran the quarter mile in high school. So my foray into middle distance running was limited to general aerobic training in the early phases of training or punishing mandatory endurance tests as part of high school gym class. Aside from my mediocre VO2 max, I just didn’t have the mentality or attention span for long distance running. For me, the term “cross-country” only applied to a nice long drive on the interstate.

When you crack open Runner’s on Running, a book compiled by Rich Elliott, you truly appreciate the passion the contributors have for the act of running. For many people, simply running for the sake of running makes absolutely no sense. I train many football, basketball and soccer players who cannot contemplate running without also thinking about tackling someone, making a lay-up or kicking a ball into the back of the net. For others, running is a way of life, a cherished process, a metaphorical journey or a simple escape. Rich Elliott writes, “My aim was to bring together the best true stories about running, the best writing about runners and races. My hope is that the pieces in this collection will entertain you, provoke you, fire your imagination, and inspire your running, as they have for me.”

Thus, it becomes clear that this is not a “How To” book on running. It could best be described as a running book of encouragement, inspirational anecdotes and short-stories, with each individual author contributing their own personal account of running – what running means to them, and how they felt when they were running. In other instances, the writers are sharing a biographical look at a unique running athlete whose story can inspire others to run and compete.

Provided below are descriptions of the contributions that caught my attention when reading through Runners on Running.

 

Dr. Sheehan

The late Dr. George Sheehan – a cardiologist who re-discovered running in his forties and became known as an authority on running for health and fitness – opens Runners on Running with his essay on the “experience” of running. “Every day I put on my running clothes, I am born again,” writes Sheehan. He talks about being a beginner every time he runs and how it is the only way to run, “Otherwise, my runs become dull, uninspired interludes.” Perhaps I should be taking Sheehan’s perspective, because every time I go for a run, I’m cursing and saying in my head, “I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and it sure isn’t getting any more fun or easier.”

Sheehan continues by discussing the process of “searching out how to run” each time he goes for a run. He comments on how tremendously simple yet how tremendously complex running can be. His approach is to “take to the roads as a beginner, a child, a poet. Hoping for a new appreciation of the landscape, a new perspective of my inner world.” Wow, some really deep stuff. Most of us are simply trying to burn a few calories and listen to a good podcast on our run. It is obvious that running to Sheehan is much more than running. It is “my fountain of youth, my elixir of life. When I run, I know there is no need to grow old.”

 

Car-Dong

In another chapter, Don Kardong reflects on running as it relates to an old Buick he formerly owned. The car kept overheating despite several attempts to resolve the problem. While having a good vomit after a tough marathon, he was “remembering the feelings of frustration I had faced in trying to get that old car going again. Sometimes, it seems, no matter who you consult or what you do, the same old problem keeps rising to the surface, bobbing and weaving in an elusive attempt to avoid getting fixed. And in running the marathon, whatever slight maladjustment might be in one’s system is bound to become a major obstacle to success. The old Buick had finally succumbed to a flaw, not unlike the one that hit me at the ten-mile mark in Minneapolis. The Buick’s flaw was in the gurgling innards of its system. So was my own.” Needless to say, I am a big fan of the car analogies when it comes to running. Hence, I enjoyed Kardong’s piece on the old Buick. Essentially, his story was about his chronic problems with intestinal irritation and his predisposition to vomiting during long races. Like his car, he tried numerous different strategies to solve the problem with no luck. His story is not unlike that of many runners (and car owners) with chronic problems that never seem to entirely go away, despite the numerous strategies we employ.

 

Bower-Man

Kenny Moore recounts one of the most interesting stories in the book entitled “The Man.” The “man” in this case is the legendary Oregon coach Bill Bowerman. The University of Oregon track coach not only trained 12 American record holders and won 4 NCAA titles, he helped popularize the activity of jogging and provide the innovative building blocks (with the use of a waffle iron) for one of the most successful sport shoe companies – Nike.

Bowerman coached Moore in the 1960’s when he attended the University of Oregon and competed in track. One day in the spring of 1964 Coach Bowerman engaged Moore, who was returning to training after a bout of the flu, after an easy workout to assess his condition. There was some disagreement over the ease of the workout that culminated in Moore recounting the following story:

    He closed great, callused hands around my throat. He did not lift me off the ground. He did relieve my feet of much of their burden. He brought my forehead to his. “I’m going to ask you to take part in an experiment,” he said with menacing calm. “For three weeks, you are not going to run a yard except in my sight. You will do a three-mile jog here every morning, and our regular afternoon workouts. If I or any of my spies see you trotting another step, you will never run for the University of Oregon again.”

    “Bill…”
    “Are we agreed?”
    “Bill…”
    “Agreed?”
    As I was feeling faint, I submitted.

If you have followed the Bill Bowerman story, you will have likely heard many stories like this. He seemed to be a rare combination of army drill sergeant, physiologist, Tibetan monk, private investigator, teacher, philosopher, inventor and coach.

    He examined and reeaxamined what we ate. What we wore. What we did (and with whom we did it). He rethought our gifts, our goals, and the blind spots that kept us from reaching them. And yet, no matter how he permeated our lives, he always kept a kind of officer-and-troops distance, never trading intimacy for intimacy. The better you knew him, the less you could let down your guard. He confounded friend and foe alike; he was completely unreadable.

After Moore had a major breakthrough in a two-mile race in a dual meet against Oregon State – achieving a 27 second personal best and besting the NCAA cross-country champion – he had become a believer in Bowerman’s over-bearing but intellectual approach to running.

    He had given me his subject. I had found myself. It finally began to penetrate my thick skull that I had to rise above the world’s fixation with sheer work. I had to attend to my own eccentric physiology. I accepted easy days into my life. I stopped counting miles.

    Over the next eight years, the one long run he permitted me every 10 days would turn me into the fourth-place finisher in the 1972 Olympic Marathon.

Reading Moore’s accounts of running under Bill Bowerman gives me the impression that every runner would want to have the opportunity to train with such a coach. It would be an astounding experience intertwined with fear, anxiety, and confusion. But ultimately – after a few years of frustration – you would have the utmost confidence in the training you were performing day in and day out. And in the final analysis, isn’t that all we want as athletes?

 

Team Hoyt

One of the most inspirational stories in this book is the one about Team Hoyt, written by John Brant. If you have ever watched the television coverage of the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon in the last 20 years, you will already know the extraordinary story of Dick and Rick Hoyt. The father-son running team from Massachusetts has completed over 1000 races, including 200 triathlons and 27 Boston Marathons. What some people may not know is that the younger half of the running team, Rick, has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair that his father, Dick, pushes through the various events. It is the kind of story that makes you sheepishly ask yourself, “What the heck have I done with my life?”

John Brant goes into the history of Team Hoyt and the origin of their incredibly inspiring partnership. Rick was born with cerebral palsy and can only move his head and his knees. He cannot feed, clean or take care of himself and requires constant care from his father. Their first running race was conceived when fifteen year-old Rick came home from school and asked his father if they could run a five-mile road race together as part of a benefit for a local athlete who had been paralyzed in a car accident. Dick, a career Army guy, was not a runner but pushed through the five-mile event despite the discomfort, with Rick enjoying every minute of it. Rick communicated, “Dad, when I’m running, it feels like I’m not handicapped.” Dick recalled, “After the race I felt disabled – I was pissing blood for a week.”

Knowing how happy running made Rick feel, Dick couldn’t help but continue to train and race with his son. Along the way, the pair have achieved a marathon PR of 2:40:47 and a personal best of 13:30 in the Hawaii Ironman World Championship. Of course, during the Ironman, Dick pulls Rick in a Zodiac raft for the 2.4 mile swim, bikes with him for the 112 mile cycle portion and then finishes with a 26.2 mile marathon pushing Rick’s modified wheelchair. Their times would be extraordinary for a normal young adult. These two have been posting fantastic times for over 30 years.

John Brant details many of the challenges and achievements of Team Hoyt, and also delves into the potential future challenges they face as both grow older. Even though Dick is now 70 years old and has survived a heart attack and knee surgery, there appears to be no immediate end to their journey together. When asked how much longer they can do this, Dick calmly replies, “We feel real good… we love what we’re doing… we’ve got no plans for quitting.” That seems like a pretty good reason to continue running.
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Just last month I was browsing through a NikeTown shop in Seattle. They had a t-shirt in the store that read, “RUNNING SUCKS”. I had a chuckle about it and knew a few 300+ pound football offensive linemen that would look good in that shirt, albeit in a XXXL size. After leaving the store, I began to think about the shirt slogan a bit more, particularly in relation to Runners on Running. The Nike t-shirt told the truth. Running is such an effective activity for exercise because it is difficult to do properly on a consistent basis. In order to get better, or even stay the same, you have to push yourself and create an environment for positive adaptation. However, this can lead to fatigue and, in some cases, constant pain. Hence, running can and does suck!

There is, however, a percentage of runners who, despite the pain and discomfort of running, think that running is a sanctuary and an activity that makes them feel free and complete. These people will wholeheartedly love a complete read through Runners on Running. The rest of us will have to read through Runners on Running to gain inspiration for overcoming the part of running that does suck.

 

                  

 

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