Being a Student of the Sport
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"Why don't you write more about running?" a well-meaning acquaintance asked me the other day. It's a good question, if not unoriginal. Anyone who knows me, even a little bit, knows that I love to run, that I've been running a long time, blah blah blah.
I guess the reason I don't write about running all that much is the same reason I don't listen to podcasts about running, or read many books about running. And that reason is this: running has been a big part of my life for a long time. It's something I love, but it already takes up so much mental real estate that I don't really want to give it any more space. I'm a multi-faceted human being with diverse interests-we all are. Plus, I've seen in real time the absurdity and emptiness that comes from putting all your eggs in one basket, to use a less-than-stellar metaphor.
I've read a few books about running, and they all seem to be saying pretty much the same things: running is a lifestyle; it's transformative; it helped the author overcome some life obstacle; it helped the author reveal some untapped inner strength; it helped the author cope with a a tragedy; it served as a stand-in addiction for some other, less healthy addiction; it brought the author to some aspirational high or some equally depressing low; it helped the author sort out thoughts; it was a spiritual practice; it simply was. These books can be personal or universal or both, but the best running books are always about more than just running. Stories are how humans communicate, and if a running story has no wider lesson, no arch beyond the physical, how are we to stay engaged? The reason I haven't set out to write my running story is quite simply because it isn't over yet, and because it's not altogether interesting. The story is unfinished and the wider arch, the unique life lesson, the intrigue, isn't yet apparent.
I had a college coach who insisted we become "students of the sport." He wanted us to follow professional runners, study training plans and nutrition, read the books, watch the movies, aspire to be one of the greats. I understood the inclination to learn about the thing we were all collectively doing, but there is a point at which being a student of the sport is redundant, exhausting, and not conducive to better performance. If I spent all my time learning about running, or following the performances or workouts of professional runners, I'd have far less time to focus on my own training. And my own training is what will bring me the most happiness and fulfillment. Working out the kinks in my own training and paying attention to how my body performs under variable circumstances is far more useful than trying to imitate someone else, or listening to the advice of someone who doesn't know me. Being an active and engaged participant in the running world and being obsessed with it are millimeters apart.
Being a student of the sport starts with being a student of yourself.
That being said, I do think it's important to learn more about the things you want to be good at. I follow professional runners and utilize some of the tactics they share in my own training. I don't imitate their training though, because they are not me. I've also learned to study races before I do them, to study the shoes and brands that I'm an ambassador for so I can speak about them with accuracy and fluency. I've learned most of what I know by doing and by making mistakes along the way. Being a student of the sport doesn't need to mean trading too much time or energy learning about other people. Being a student of the sport should start with being a student of yourself. Know what makes your body tick, know what training is helpful and what is harmful. Know how to fuel your body, pay attention to signs of fatigue, and learn about which nutrients or activities you might be missing out on.
I have learned so much from the sport of running. I've traveled to some magnificent places, powered by my own two legs. I've experienced pure joy, defeat, frustration, and deep contentment. But I'm not sure, yet, what the athlete in me will be able to do. I'm not done pushing my boundaries. I'm not even close. Someday, I might have more to say, but for now, the thing I know I will one day write is still unfolding. It's there, but like most good stories, it needs to marinate a bit first.
P.S. Read Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami, or Bravey by Alexi Pappas. Find a podcast about running here, or read about how running "went mainstream" here.