On the Run

This photo shows sneakers during a run

“We train to race, we don’t train to train!”

Coach Sundberg‘s mantra would be oft-repeated in the three years I ran cross-country, spurred by team-wide resistance to a speed- or hill drill, sluggishness on a long run, or some who-needs-a-reason teenage rebellion during practice.

The first time I heard it, I may have laughed. I was never much of a racer, typically finishing in the middle of the LHS women’s team. I knew I wouldn’t be getting any scholarships for my athletic prowess, so my attitude was always one of showing up, doing my best, but also downplaying competition. And to his credit, Sunny (as he was always called) never pushed too hard – never enough to diminish the love of the sport, create animosity or bad blood among his runners, or cause anxiety beyond the natural pre-race jitters. I can’t remember him once losing his temper, using negative reinforcement, or ever belittling his team.

In fact, it was the opposite: Sunny’s zen-like attitude to “drink the dew” off blades of grass, break up wispy cirrus clouds with one’s mind during in-the-field stretches (“Look what you’re doing!”), or calling out gorgeous scenery during a long training run was a welcome antidote to the hyper-competitive ambitions of pre-college years. If I had a difficult exam, an argument with my parents or friends, or was stressing about some other teenage drama, I knew I could work it out—literally—through a good run, stretch, and lift with my cross-country coach and buddies.

It’s because of Sunny that I still love to go on a run, 20+ years later. Nowadays, I unabashedly train to train, and it’s downright joyful. It’s time for me to clear my head, to meditate, to work out something that’s been puzzling me. Sometimes, a good run is the only way for me to manage stress, anger, or anxiety: The rhythmic breathing, the repetition of each footfall faithfully following the next, the sated exhaustion at completing a route, all work together to quiet my frazzled mind. By the time I’m done, what seemed so stressful has diminished, what I couldn’t tackle before now seems manageable.

And so training to train has become something of a personal motto. Think about it: Most days, we’re not asked to race. We’re asked to put one foot in front of the other, to be steady, reliable, level-headed, on course, yet open to detours—all qualities of a great long-distance run. Marriage, parenting, a full-time job—these are all training exercises of the longest (and highest) order. Approaching each with dedication, a sense of calm, and appreciation make the preparation indistinguishable from the actual journey: An otherwise-nondescript Tuesday evening run has the possibility of a personal best time; a 5K Fun Run with a local running club is an opportunity to connect with colleagues and friends (or make new connections). A solo run on a gorgeous fall day triggers a memory of cross-country practice and reminds one to reach out to old friends on Facebook; a friendly wave from a stranger running by gives a boost of energy, and reinforces the shared experiences of runners, wherever one may be.

I hear through the grapevine that he’s retiring this year, and deservedly so. Thanks to him, even though no race awaits me, I know because of Sunny that the run will still be worthwhile, and worth doing. His legacy, for me, has been as enduring as endurance itself.

Photo courtesy Nick Page via Flickr

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