Best Running Lessons

One of the joys of running is that every time you step out the door you may learn something valuable. Often the best running lessons you learn are also your best life lessons. This week, Mike shares some thoughts on one such lesson.

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Strangely, my best running lesson happened before I was a runner and I am still learning from it. My best friend growing up in San Jose and in College at Berkeley was Paul. Paul had polio when he was a kid but recovered and became a great athlete. He had tremendous eye-hand coordination and excelled in all aspects of sport using that skill. He would beat me and everyone else, like a drum, shooting hoops, in golf, pitching and hitting the baseball, ping pong, and as quarterback.

But Paul wasn’t that big and was overweight and had no speed. So he became a playground legend rather than a high school or college star, although he did achieve some competitive success in golf. His leg speed was legend but for the wrong reasons. All the proper nicknames applied – molasses, ice flow, continental drift, backward. He was slow with a capital S, L, O, and W.

Paul headed off to Santa Barbara for his last few years of college and came back a different person. He grew several inches and started running before running was cool. When I saw him after a year break he was a different person. Slim, tan, and more confident. When he challenged me to a running race I thought he was joking.

A running race? Certainly I could never lose to “molasses” Paul. But why do it? He wanted to race two miles on the track the next day and I started my bidding at 200 yards in two weeks. This race could very well be won or lost in the negotiation stages. We decided it would be fun and settled on the classic mile distance. No spectators – just mano a mano. San Jose City College track in a week.

I trained a bit over the next week, but really knew very little about running. Race day was very warm and I decided the best strategy was to just stay at whatever pace Paul was running and then outkick him with a hundred yards to go. I had no doubt I would win. Paul was S. L. O. W.

The first lap was pretty tactical and I was very comfortable running alongside him. There was a lot of trash talk and he actually seemed to be laughing at me and smirking. He picked up the pace gradually on laps 2 and 3 and seemed very comfortable as I was gasping for breath and struggling by the end of lap 3. On the last lap he forged ahead about 10 yards, then 20, then more, and I could visualize myself defeated and demoralized. Losing to Paul would be a lifetime setback.

But just like in the movies, with my heart pounding, legs and arms like lead, I willed myself closer. My body said NO every step, then started yelling “Hell NO!” but my mind was stronger. It was a complete surprise and I put on a finishing kick and passed him with about 30 yards to go.

I had learned huge lessons that day. The human body can do miraculous things if you let it. Strength of will can carry you to success. I should have prepared more. There is great personal satisfaction in striving to be your best.

Now, forty some odd years later, I am still learning from that lesson and Paul. Paul, like so many others who had polio when children, had a ticking bomb inside. He is now stricken with post-polio syndrome. A disease most people have never heard of. The ravages of polio, due to weakened muscles, return later in life. Muscle weakness, trouble walking, trouble breathing, nerve damage, all return. My father, also a polio victim when a child, had the same debilitating disease later in life. It’s vastly unfair. Even more unfair in that they were both athletes.

While Paul has trouble breathing and walks using a walker, I can run marathons. While Paul takes tons of prescribed medications, I choose to take vitamins. While every effort is a struggle for Paul, I find things easy. While he is depressed and pessimistic, I am upbeat and optimistic. Certainly in his condition I would be depressed and pessimistic as well. Probably more than he is.

Do I feel guilty for being healthy? Actually, yes. Do I feel guilty when I see Paul? Actually, yes. Do I feel guilty that I can’t help? For sure. Do I feel I am lucky to be healthy and he is unlucky to not be? Yes. Do I feel I am in control of this luck? Unfortunately, I don’t.

Looking back on this seemingly unimportant mile race at San Jose City College 40 years ago, I now realize the biggest lesson was that I was in a situation where I ultimately controlled the outcome. My own will pulled me through. Also I realize that if Paul had been faster or better trained, I could have tried my best and still finished second, but I still would have known inside that I did my best. No guilt. No random acts. The win wasn’t the lesson, it was the total effort. It was about control.

Every time I run now I feel the same way. In control. Healthy. No Guilt. Life is fair. It’s when I stop that I have my doubts.


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