Riding home from the Illinois State Cross Country Championships yesterday, as the athletes slipped on headphones, turned to homework, or focused attention on computers, the van finally quieted enough to reflect. My mind stretched back and out—to my own running experience, to my experience parenting a runner on our team, to serving as an assistant coach. I began thinking of the lessons of running, and this morning I wrote them down:
1. It’s the work that matters:
We call it “background mileage,” but it’s fundamentally familiarity, hours of stride chained to stride, all to habituate you to effort, all to find your best effort. The doing makes you better. Runners’ bodies become more efficient, but the real progress occurs elsewhere. Their minds resize to accommodate greater expectations. What seems Herculean becomes ordinary. Ordinary becomes a way station to something longer, faster, harder.
2. Some days the bear will eat you, some days you eat the bear:
Besides being a Joan Armatrading song—and a common saying—this lesson becomes clear quickly. You have “it” sometimes and other times not. The successful runner must be resilient and recognize that, as much as everyone would like progress to be linear, it’s more like a planet in the night sky, looping in retrograde motion. When you fall down, you get up. Sometimes your worst day falls on the wrong day, which keeps you needing another day and another and another.
2.5. Hard work trumps talent when talent doesn’t work hard:
If only this lesson were entirely true! Day-in day-out labor brings surprising rewards that, over time, help you overcome untrained runners. Believing in pure work keeps plodders dreaming. Past a certain level, however, talent will win. Every serious runner absorbs this lesson in humility: if you desire success, you must make the most of what you have—whatever you have—knowing it still might not be enough. The pay-off is discovering that, though you’d love to have the work ethic AND the talent, you can satisfy for the work ethic.
3. Someone is always faster than you and someone always slower:
The real truth in the last lesson: no matter how talented or hardworking you are, you can’t expect to be the best in every single outing. You will have bad days (see #2), others will have good days (see #2.5), and it’s not about where you finish in the end anyway (see #1 and #4). I’ve stood at the finish line enough times to recognize all runners run the same race. They have different, but equal, reasons to be proud.
4. Glory is everywhere:
For a runner, the glory is in diligence, hope, and survival. No winner can claim those qualities exclusively. Good luck, bad luck, good day, bad day, yesterday I watched some runners charge through the line, and others drift or limp over it. I imagine some of them are still high from their triumphs and some still sore from their perceived failure. Who’s to say who’s better in the end? The attempt means everything and teaches the ultimate lesson: you have strengths to discover.
I made it all this way without alluding to Chariots of Fire, but now I can’t resist. After winning a race, Eric Liddell, the flying Scotsman, tells a crowd of working people, “Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.”
These lessons may emerge from any sport or any endeavor that requires devotion and labor. However, as a coach, a runner, and the father of runners, I’m biased—what’s within makes my sport glorious.