The Penguin Chronicles: A Body In Motion

Once you find that feeling of fluid running, you will have officially become a runner. Illustration: Neil Numberman

Once you dial into that sweet spot, running will never be the same.

For nearly 10 years I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many of the top runners of this and past generations at marathon expos. The one interview that is guaranteed to be filled with surprises, thoughtful nuance and outrageous proclamations is Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter. Typically, I’ll ask Frank what’s on his mind and 45 minutes later he stops talking.

I recently asked Frank how it was that he maintained his enthusiasm for running for so many years. He said he simply loved to run. Training and racing weren’t things he had to do but things he wanted to do. More than that, he said, he’d have been a runner all of his life even if he’d never won a race.

What he said next was insightful and classic Frank Shorter. He opined that each of us has a natural motion that feels best. For him, that motion was his feet landing and pushing off the ground, his arms pumping in opposing directions, and the gentle lifting and lowering of his chest. For many of us that description captures what it is about running that moves us as well. It moves us because it moves us. It moves some of us faster than others. It moves some of us farther than others. But it moves us just the same.

It got me to thinking about the movements in my life that I enjoy. When I was young I loved to ride my bicycle. I know that lots of children like to ride but it was more than that for me. My bicycle was my way of being something that I wasn’t when I was off the bike. I could be a policeman, an explorer or simply a kid on a bike. The spinning wheels — with or without playing cards or balloons in them — were hypnotic and transcendent.

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Riding a bicycle wasn’t exercise. It wasn’t cross-training. It wasn’t anything other than riding. It was an expression of who I was and an extension of who I was. I loved it.

I think that’s why I started my journey as an athlete on a bicycle. Running didn’t come as naturally to me. I didn’t hate it, but I couldn’t say I loved it. Unlike Frank, the seamless motion of legs, feet, arms and chest eluded me. My motion was more abrupt and clumsy. Each footstrike was an intentional act, not a primal movement.

Putting together five minutes of running, or five continuous miles of running, was an accumulation of discrete elements. It was simply left foot, right foot, repeat. The transition between the landing phase and the push-off phase seemed more like the stuttering steps of a marionette than the fluid movement of an athlete. In spite of that, I was moving forward.

When new runners say they hate it, I understand. I would argue now that it isn’t the running that they hate, it’s the movement that they haven’t embraced. Running as an activity isn’t inherently good or bad. It can’t really be loved or hated. It is a mechanical reality. It is what it is.

But the movement, the motion, of running can be loved. It can be enticing to the point of almost being addictive. Once you’ve felt it — whatever it is — you want to feel it again. If you’re like most of us you’ll chase that feeling. You’ll run in the heat. You’ll run in the cold and rain. You’ll run when you shouldn’t and try to run when you can’t.

At least that is what happened for me. Sometime, somewhere, on a trail or path or high school track, I felt what Frank talked about. In that moment, I went from being someone who runs to being a runner.

This column first appeared in the May 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.

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About The Author:

John Bingham, aka The Penguin, will share his running tales and experiences every month. Have a story of your own to share or a topic you’d like The Penguin to consider? E-mail him at thepenguin@johnbingham.com

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