Ward Nicholson

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The Earth at my feet: why I ran back when — why I run now

Sometimes, after the spiral has turned many years later, you discover the things that motivated you in the beginning are still what motivate you in the end, after other things have fallen away.

The first day I decided to become a distance runner, when I was 14 years old, I went out and ran four miles around the local lake just outside my small hometown. This was without any prior training, to speak of. It was not an easy effort, but not terribly difficult either — somewhat challenging, but it came naturally.

I had no special experience related to running other than a very active childhood playing outside just about every day exploring the neighborhood, taking part in little league sports, and running short sprint races against friends in local grade school and middle school competitions, or during playground recesses from time to time.

When it came to running specifically, as with these short races, I did nothing much longer than sprinting probably 75 to 100 yards, or playing games like “tag” where one might be continually moving for some time but running or sprinting only for intermittent short bursts. As far as track and field went, I had been more into long-jumping and pole-vaulting in the preceding years during middle school. Golf was also a pursuit, affordable to a wide swath of the middle and lower-middle classes in those days, and all of us except some of the adults walked and carried our own clubs around the course, rather than riding in carts.

Prior to the day mentioned above, I had gotten my feet wet a few times in the preceding weeks, running solo time trials of perhaps a mile and a half around the local neighborhood streets, but no more than that, just to see what I could do.

The second day, I ran four miles around the lake again. And each day after that I continued to run four miles or so, trying out different routes for variety. But immediately I was running almost 30 miles a week.

Starting out with distance running like this did not seem that unusual to me. I had always had more endurance than the other kids, whatever the game we were playing. Others always wanted to quit before I did. I did not have a high energy level, but the ability to endure had seemingly always been there.

In the beginning, the primary motivators in my running were achievement and competition, as well as the fact I just enjoyed the challenge of the effort and the very action of running itself. Striding along under one’s own energy and power — the primal, yet fluidly lithe, smoothly coordinated, and perpetual bounding and swinging movement itself — had an endlessly fascinating pull that I could not adequately explain, then or now, other than to recognize its role as the inborn, instinctual human means of locomotion at speed.

And the very act of covering so much distance at the kind of sustained, elevated pace that was possible with training, eating up the ground mile upon mile was just… so… cool… somehow. It was like some kind of secret power that few in those days were willing to put in the time or effort to be able to experience, at least back then before running became more popular like it is today.

What kicked things off to start with was that I had gotten inspired by reading a biography of Jim Ryun, the world-record-setting miler from our state who had grown up and gone to school just 20 miles away from my hometown. But the focus on competition this inspired was only the initial impetus, soon to be joined by other things.

When I first began running like this — on my own before ever doing so in a competitive team situation, though with that in mind — it was a few months prior to my freshman year in secondary school. At the time, middle schools were called “junior high,” which comprised grades seven, eight, and nine, with high schools, unlike today, comprising only the final three grade levels 10, 11, and 12.

When the cross-country season of my freshman year came around, my dad stepped in and spoke to a few people, and I was allowed to try out for the high school varsity team since cross-country was not available as a junior-high-school-level sport. It turned out that I had some talent, and I made last (7th) man on the team and was able to hold down that position for the duration of the season.

In our area of the state, to my knowledge I was the first freshman to have ever tried out and made a high school varsity cross-country team, so I enjoyed some immediate success and recognition. As it was to turn out, though, after I had “paved the way,” the very next year another freshman in town achieved the same milestone and much more: Not only did he make the varsity team, he also became the number one runner, with talent a significant notch above my own, often placing second in area meets behind only the most accomplished runners in the region.

So while I enjoyed a brief time as an up-and-coming talent, it was soon eclipsed. Regardless of any recognition for my accomplishments, though, and besides aiming at competitive achievement, I also quickly found I loved to run just for its own sake. It was a “both/and,” “all of the above” love, none of which ruled out its enjoyment for any other reasons.

In large part, I loved running because I was a “natural” at it. I had a very slender, quintessential distance runner’s physique perfectly suited for it. In addition, I found it psychologically satisfying on numerous levels: Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact I was a top student and intellectually oriented, I loved the primal way it connected me to the “animal” side of human nature. I loved just the kinesthetic feeling of running itself — for itself.

Somehow when I ran and everything was “clicking,” I felt that I was touching into the experience of what it must have been like to be a natural-born, primitive human being. This feeling of connection was direct, immediate, and completely physical — a modern athletic endeavor in the format I was pursuing it, yet also ancient in its instinctiveness and simplicity. Elements that are very much lacking in our modern lives for the most part.

Distance running also perfectly meshed with my personality strengths. It rewarded dedication, patience, and consistency, plus a healthy respect for, and humility about, one’s current limits, coupled with an opposing drive to exceed them in order to successfully progress. It capitalized on the exploitation of long-term persistence rather than uncommitted, flash-in-the-pan ability. It encouraged self-knowledge and inner-directedness and careful management of energy and time. It required the harnessing of emotion into a controlled discipline, with aware sacrifice and knowledge of the tradeoffs and physical paybacks involved, and carefully thought-out, strategic planning and execution over long periods of time. All this in opposition to the American bias for outward-oriented flashiness and profligacy, for brief outbursts of brilliance or talent later abandoned, or brawns over brains.

But it was more. I greatly enjoyed the camaraderie not only with teammates but with runners we met often in competition from other towns, all of whom were making similar efforts and sacrifices. Or at least most of those who were competing at the same level were doing so. Whether teammates or opposing runners — to me it did not matter too much: what did matter was that we brought out the best in one another.

I knew just what the other runners competing side by side with me had likely gone through to get where they were, and respected them for it. Distance running was like a brotherhood that transcended who might be your teammate or your opponent, a brotherhood that did not exist in sports like football where kill-the-other-guy mantras and egos ruled.

I am not sure all runners who compete at the level I did are like me in the following respect, but I did not care that much if I didn’t win. Which is a good thing, because while I did win some races, and although I usually placed in the top five my senior year in our high school’s class division statewide, much more often I got beaten.

What I really cared about instead was getting the best out of myself and improving my times, and I especially enjoyed responding against competitors in the thick of a race, whether I ended up outcompeting them or vice versa. For example, executing a better, smarter pacing strategy, and leaving behind in mid-race the competitors who had gone out too quickly (often at the behest of ignorant coaches). Or being able to reach down deep and pull out an exhilarating final surge or kick, regardless of whether it brought me a top-three medal or podium-finish or not.

Near the end of a race, nothing was better than an intensely fought duel, or three or four-way, against opposing, yet respected, runners — where I was feeling at my best and running at or near my limit, with them challenging and me responding in kind. Win or lose, 5th place or 10th, the crucible of competing and responding successfully on one’s own terms was what mattered. Because without respected opponents — who sometimes also became friends over the course of a season, whom you might cool down with or hang out with before and after races — what would racing be? A mere time trial, not a true competition. Not in my mind, at least.

What I did not run for were the shouts and cries of so many of the spectators and boosters who cared only about winning, who had little understanding of the sport, who had no idea, no appreciation. People who — when I was having a day where I wasn’t feeling my best — would shout supposedly encouraging comments (“C’mon, Ward! Pass that guy!”) that were in reality frustrated, hard-hearted goads. When I obviously was not going to be passing that guy, not today, not the way I happened to be feeling in this race. And besides, “that guy,” referred to as such impersonally like an enemy by a booster, might have been someone I admired and felt should be treated with respect.

Mere spectators like this had no idea that my view was — considering I happened to be feeling sub-par that day — it was an accomplishment to be proud of that I had nonetheless managed to pull out a near-best effort, despite losing a race I might otherwise have won… and not even getting the recognition of runner-up, but taking home, say, third place instead.

What did it matter, when you had broken through into a zone where you and your fellow competitors were creating and partaking in something you experienced between and amongst yourselves, and that most onlookers except other distance runners could never know? Something that would never even exist except for the other guys who might have beaten you? No, they were the ones I respected and whose respect I wanted, not the crowd’s.

But more than competition — which could often be incredibly painful when pushing one’s limits to the extreme — I enjoyed the time alone out training on the road by myself. What I really relished was heading out of town on foot and running most of a training run “out in the middle of nowhere,” so to speak, on the country roads outside our small town, with the landscape mostly to myself.

On dirt roads lined by pastures and old barbed-wire fences or by long hedgerows, running by flood-control dikes, railroad tracks, fields of wheat, milo, or corn, oilfield stripper-well “rocking horses,” even a local greyhound farm where the sleek dogs would lope along easily beside me in their long pens adjacent to the dirt road as I ran past. Over rivers and creeks, on pancake-flat flood plains, over gently rolling hills on either side of those same creeks and rivers, over old iron or wooden bridges crossing from one side to the other.

A run on unexplored terrain, and gentle excitement as you venture farther than you ever have before, on a new route taking in heretofore unfamiliar territory. Then over time, as you run it repeatedly, folding this additional acreage into what becomes another outlying area of your “home” territory, the center of your own private universe out in the boonies, unbeknownst to others.

At the same time, running to exploit your full potential is something of an intellectual endeavor. You cannot just bull your way through it and improve beyond a certain point. To get the most out of yourself and truly realize your potential, you must constantly monitor your effort and your body’s responses. Whether to push faster or pull back, heeding the signals from muscles and tendons, depending on whether they are responding well or not, or if it might be wise to cut a run short to give them time to bounce back and preclude a potential injury, from having pushed too far, or too hard, or too early.

To succeed, you need to take the long-term view, not get caught up in short-term emotion. You build a regimen measured by just the right balance of duration, intensity, and frequency, as dictated and adjusted by the feedback of your body, and no other’s. Longer and slower versus shorter and faster. Changing the mix of ingredients depending on evolving long, medium, and short-term goals, weather, and so forth.

Some days, you feel like you can run forever, an illusory feeling to be sure, but a magnetic experience while it is happening. When younger, for a period of time — an hour, two hours, three — you might be suspended in a nexus of nearly perfect balance, energy flow, and harmony. Your stride smooth, sure, nearly effortless, mile after mile, another one and another one and yet another, bounding lightly over the Earth, but connected to it all the while.

Other days, on faster, shorter workouts, that rare run where a full quota of power flows through you without obstruction, fluidly and responsively, at easy command of your will. Feeling at the peak of your physical prowess, a grace manifest in every move.

On days when you realize you have somehow broken through to a new performance level, whether in time or distance, pinching yourself a bit, surprised that the effort is no more than before. Perhaps even easier. Now with a sense of expanded horizons about what might be possible, about where your next “frontier” might be.

Or, when performance levels recede as you age, you become more and more grateful with the passage of time, as I have, that you can simply continue to run and experience, as much as ever, all the other attributes that still remain.

I run slower these days and not as far, but the older I get, the more I appreciate the simple things about running that I always loved from day one. The pressure and feel of the road underneath moving through the sole of my shoe at touchdown and liftoff. The kiss of the ground and the angular momentum coursing through a perfectly flexed ankle thrusting forward with optimal efficiency and power. The primal bipedal rhythm one moves to and feels inside when striding across the landscape.

The breeze in one’s face, the feel of sweat and sinew, of being all that one experiences in a passage defined by time, energy, and distance. With the many varieties of fatigue one’s intimately familiar companion, riding the kinetic chain of movement of our two-legged species, one day at the upper edge of one’s effort and ability, another day in the sweet spot of ease. With the sun or trees or moon above, the horizon at infinity.

For me, the road ahead continues to beckon.

Of course, experiences like those described above characterize the best days, and running isn’t always like that. In between are more workmanlike days, or days you don’t feel as good, when you have to work through excess fatigue or perhaps just bail and take the day off for more full recovery. Overall, though, if the highs didn’t considerably outnumber and outweigh the lows, you would not continue.

As you age, your goals or experiential focus may change. Even if one was formerly an accomplished athlete, competition and races may no longer be a draw, and you might cease participating or do so more for socializing with fellow runners rather than performance.

Or, it could even be the opposite. It has come about recently that, though I haven’t been interested in competing for many years, I have become motivated to get involved with it again for reasons I didn’t foresee happening. This I’ll follow up with in a future post.

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