Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Joy of Running (or not)

One of my greatest challenges in coaching came in the realization that many kids join cross country and track because they love the act of running in and of itself - not the sport of racing. It seems odd to me now that I never really considered that a realistic possibility. I knew that there were people out there who loved to run but didn't like to race but I always assumed they'd know better than to actual join teams in which racing was the objective. I mean, just because I like to sing in the shower, in the car, on runs and anywhere else I'm alone doesn't mean I'm going to start clamoring for gigs when the last thing in the world I want is to sing in front of other people. I just wasn't ready the first few times I heard athletes say they wished they could just go off in the hills and run without the necessity of racing.

Of course my first response was, you can, you're just not supposed to join the team. I think part of my problem was the background I had in other sports. A football coach would never hear that while his kicker loved drilling 60 yard field goals all day in practice, he really didn't want to do it in a game. Neither would a basketball coach see a kid spend an hour a day hitting 90% from the free throw line and then have him claim to hate playing games. The reason we spend all that time practicing other sports is to excel in the game itself. Football and basketball practices are hell for the most part. The only reason I did them was to get better to be a better competitor. This is the same way I felt about running. On almost every run I've been on, I can think of several things I'd rather be doing than running. I cannot think of anything I'd rather be doing than preparing myself for a great race, however. I simply didn't - and do be honest still don't - understand the mindset of going out for a sport when you don't like the sport itself.

I believe other sports don't have this problem because running is the only sport where the recreation has become superimposed on the sport in the media, our schools, and even in professional and championship racing. The most competitive road races in the world are simultaneously run with the jogging, charity runs. Boston and New York marathons come to mind but in another minute I could rattle off twenty more. In schools, there is the "no cut" policy and as a coach, you actually get in trouble for making competition a mandatory part of being on the team. When I watch the Olympics, in the middle of the championship schedule are the handicapped races. I have no problem with handicapped races but I have yet to see a wheelchair flag football game break out at the end of the third quarter of the Superbowl. We bombard young runners with the idea that there is little difference between elite running and casual jogging. In fact, running publications such as Runner's World and Running Times perpetuate this amalgamation to the point that elites are considered lesser souls than participant runners.

One of the first great revelations I had after reading an article in one of these rags at a very young age, was that I was not an evolved runner. The article listed a progression of enlightenment or some such garbage in which the competitor was several rungs below the well rounded, holistic, runner. Of course i read it, and said, oh well, I'm ten, maybe when i'm forty i'll be more well rounded. No such luck. I never read Pro Football digest to learn how to throw a 50 yard spiral or how the joy of throwing the ball is more important than how far or how accurate I throw, I read it to learn more about the guys that already could. I wanted to be like them and when I found out I would never be over six feet and nothing short of lots of "supplements" ending in "ol" would put me over 200 pounds I knew that football was not my sport if I wanted to be a great athlete. I never once read or had someone tell me that so long as I enjoyed playing the game, I was equal to or superior to the guys who played in the Pro Bowl. That is unique to running.

So as a sport we get the kids who hate competition. When I scratch my head as to why coaches are constantly paranoid of having world class runners race more than a handful of times each season and then see this trickle down through the colleges and to high schools where a team will deliberately lose a dual meet rather than sack up and have have some pride in what they do, I realize the root of it all. While some kids and adults come to this sport because they love competition, and they choose running as one of the purist, most basic forms of competition there is, most are here by default. They come to running because they can't or don't want to compete anywhere else. If racing is a necessary evil they will do it once or twice a season  but other than that, let's just prepare. It's no wonder so few of the naturally great athletes choose running in their youth. Why would a confident, athletic, kid, who loves to compete and loves to win choose a sport where competing is taboo and winning is irrelevant and desire to win seen as a character flaw. I keep hearing about football and basketball coaches who fear they will lose their job if they can't win. I'm pretty sure your job is in greater jeopardy if you do win as a cross country or track coach, or at least coach in such a way that promotes it.

So this is a shout out to all those who don't love the act of running in and of itself. To those who might run, but not nearly the same way they do now, if it weren't for competition. For those who have never said the act of running is better than sex. (Yes I have heard that more than once and always think one of us is doing one of those activities really, really, wrong). This is for those whom, if they found out they could win an Olympic Gold by running once a week and getting stung by bees for a minute a day the other six, would not only instantly take up that program but might actually prefer it. This is for people who love to race, to succeed, to win - and if winning is just not possible than to beat the people who beat you last week, last month, last year. If you're already winning than to be better than YOU were last week, last month, last year. This is for those whose fondest running memory is a race. We may be unevolved but that's ok, because in all honesty, what sounds cooler: Homo Sapiens or australopithecus?

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