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The Curse of Talent

Talent-AttitudeMost days I love my job. I’m not always happy when I’m repacking a carry-on bag that I just unpacked, but for the most part traveling to races around the country, meeting runners and walkers of all shapes, sizes, ages, and abilities is very satisfying. Even more so, lately, I’ve enjoyed getting to spend time talking to, and learning from, the sport’s very best.

Recently, in a conversation with Deena Kastor, arguably the greatest runner of this generation, I asked her about her early running days. She said she knew at 11 years old that she had talent. And that having that talent identified so early on in her career was actually a curse. Knowing that she had talent meant she could rely on talent rather than hard work. According to Deena, it wasn’t until she had finished her collegiate career that she decided to see what the combination of talent and hard work would yield.

Most of us, it seems to me, curse the fact that we don’t have enough talent. Many of us are convinced that if we had more talent we’d be more successful. After all, if it was easier for us to run faster, or sing better, or think more clearly, wouldn’t life just be a piece of cake? Turns out, the answer to that may be no.

In the years that I was in the music industry, as a performer, teacher, and administrator, I often had students who were blessed with talent. I also had students who had a bare minimum of talent but had drive and ambition to spare. In music, at least, those students with talent most often excelled early on – until their talent ran out – and then those with more modest talent but a more determined work ethic prevailed.

It sounds like, if I understand what Deena was saying, that the same is true in the running industry. I can think of a number of professional runnerrunners who seem to have tons of natural talent but who, for some reason, never seem to be able turn that talent into race wins.

As a musician, my talent ran out my freshman year in college. I had been able to get away with not practicing, I got admitted into a music degree program, and even managed a small scholarship all without really trying. That all changed the day I walked into my first Millikin University Jazz Lab Band rehearsal. That day Roger Schueler, the band’s leader, made it clear the he didn’t care how much talent any of us had. He was going to make us work.

The result of his insisting that we push ourselves beyond our comfort level was a Jazz Band of relatively modest talent that became a world-class ensemble.

While I don’t have an Olympic medal, or a victory at a World Majors Marathon [or two in Deena’s case] I do have memories of working hard and playing well, and feeling like on that day, on that stage, I had done all I could. Whatever modest talent I had as a musician, I think I made the most of it.

Unfortunately, I exhausted my running talent in about a week. It just wasn’t there. Running didn’t come easily. Improvement didn’t come automatically. Running form and efficiency didn’t come naturally. What did happen almost immediately was that I knew that I liked being a runner.

So, if you’re feeling like your talent isn’t equal to your ambition, maybe it’s time to relax. Your talent is what your talent is. That won’t change. But what you do with it is what will matter most.

Waddle on, friends.

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Life is short. Vacation actively. MORE INFO

Flashback Friday: I am not a Jogger

I may waddle when I run, but I’m running all the same.

free-vector-jogging-boy-clip-art_109244_Jogging_Boy_clip_art_hightThe late Dr. George Sheehan, beloved “Runner’s World” columnist and arguably the first running boom’s premier philosopher, once wrote that the difference between a runner and a jogger was a signature on a race application. (For the youngsters out there, there was a time before online registration when you actually filled out a paper application, signed it, attached a check, and mailed it in. Quaint, I know.)

As succinct as Dr. Sheehan’s definition was, it made the point. If you were motivated enough to train for and participate in an organized running event, then you were a runner. Anyone willing to risk public failure in order to be a part of the running community – no matter what his or her pace per mile might be – was a runner. Period. Kind of hard for anyone to argue with that logic.

But a few months ago, an ad ran in this magazine that drew a very hard line between runners and joggers. I immediately heard from tons of readers who were upset by the distinction. To me, however, such definitions are meaningless, since those of us who call ourselves runners already know why we call ourselves runners. Your reasons may be different from mine, but here’s why I know I am a runner:

I am a runner because my runs have names. I do tempo runs and threshold runs and fartlek runs. I do long, slow runs and track workouts. My runs are defined, even if my abs are not.

I am a runner because my shoes are training equipment, not a fashion statement. The best shoe for me is the one that makes me a better runner. I choose the shoe that goes with my running mechanics, not my running outfit.

I am a runner because I don’t have running outfits. I have technical shirts and shorts and socks. I have apparel that enhances the experience of running by allowing me to run comfortably. I can say “Coolmax” and “Gore-Tex” in the same sentence and know which does what.

I am a runner because I know what effort feels like, and I embrace it. I know when I’m pushing the limits of my comfort and why I’m doing it. I know that heavy breathing and an accelerated heart rate – things I once avoided – are necessary if I want to be a better runner.

I am a runner because I value and respect my body. It will whisper to me when I’ve done too much. And if I choose to listen to that whisper, my body won’t have to scream in pain later on.

I am a runner because I am willing to lay it all on the line. I know that every finish line has the potential to lift my spirits to new highs or devastate me, yet I line up anyway.

I am a runner because I know that despite my best efforts, I will always want more from myself. I will always want to know my limits so that I can exceed them.

I am a runner because I run. Not because I run fast. Not because I run far.

I am a runner because I say I am. And no one can tell me I’m not.

Waddle on, friends.

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Friday Favorite: Stacking the Deck

lyubov-orlovaStacking the Deck

Imagine a marathon in shorts and a singlet in the shadow of a 10,000 year old glacier.

The 2001 Antarctic Marathon, or The Last Marathon as it is called, was exactly that way. I know. I was there. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

When Thom Gilligan, of Marathon Tours, called to ask if I wanted to run with a bunch of penguins, I said “Sure!”. When he explained that the penguins were in Antarctica and that the only way to get to the race site was by flying to the tip of South America and then taking a 2 day boat ride through the roughest seas on the planet and that running the race meant spending 11 days on a ship my stomach sank. But, I was committed.

Let me admit right off the bat that my idea of roughing it is not having 24 hour room service. Let me further admit that my nautical experience has consisted mostly of trying not to drown while being dragged around head first behind a ski boat. And, finally, I must have been absent the one day we spent talking about Antarctica in my high school geography class, because I knew nothing except that the South Pole was there.

But, ever eager to take on new challenges, I set out to prepare for the adventure. I sought out cold and snowy conditions in which to train. I experimented with clothes and gear and shoes. I even found myself  shopping in “outfitter” stores for windblocker fleece and waterproof gloves. And to complete the look, I stopped shaving two months before the trip began. I wanted to have the rugged look that all the Polar explorers seemed to have.

When the departure date finally arrived, I was ready. I was prepared for anything the Antarctic could throw at me. Or so I thought.  I was ready to take on the cold, the wind, and the course. But, as I was soon to find out, when it comes to Antarctica, there is no being ready. This is a continent that is wilder and more unpredictable than any other place on earth.

My first lesson in the vagaries of Antarctica came on the first full day aboard the ship. We sailed through the dreaded Drake Passage, the point of convergence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as if it were a quiet lake. It was like the continent was tempting us to continue, luring us deeper into it’s grasp. With our spirits high we sailed towards King George Island, the site of the marathon itself. And it was there that we learned that the Antarctic is a beast that no one can tame.

On our first evening off the coast of King George Island we watched the waves break over the bow. We were barely moving forward and yet the waves came crashing across the deck. The fog was so thick that we could not see 1/4 mile to the Uruguayan research base that would have been the starting line. The seas were so rough that we couldn’t get the advance team off the ship to mark the course.

The next morning the conditions were worse. We zigged and zagged helplessly up and down the Bransfield Straight waiting for any kind of break in the weather. Finally, late in the evening of the second day, the winds calmed down enough to get the advance team to the island.

We returned to King George Island late the following day to bring the advance team back on board, but it wasn’t to be. The winds were gale force by then. Undaunted, we gathered for the prerace pasta dinner in the hopes of running a marathon the following morning.

Race day dawned with more wind and waves. The advance team was stranded on shore. We couldn’t get to them, and they couldn’t get to us. The marathon was canceled for that day, and we sailed away in search of calmer water and clearer skies. That night, we returned to King George, ate another prerace pasta dinner, and waited for the dawn.

The weather on the second race day morning was the worst we had encountered. In addition to the wind and the waves, we now had horizontal snow which caused white out conditions on what would have been the first three miles of the course. Somehow, the advance team was rescued from the island and returned to the ship. But the race was now clearly in jeopardy. We had exhausted the time we had to wait. It was now or never.

At noon on the second race day, the announcement came which we had all feared. The race, the marathon, the chance to run on Antarctica, was canceled. We sat in stunned silence as we tried to absorb the reality of what was happening. After nearly six days aboard the ship, after traveling thousands of miles, after training for months, the marathon was not going to happen.

That might be the end of the story, if this had been a group of normal people. But, these were runners. We had all faced adversity in one form or another before. We had all learned to adjust our definitions of success. We had all stared defeat squarely in the eye and refused to give in. We were NOT going to concede to the frozen continent. We would run our marathon one way or another.

And so it was that at 3:10 PM on February 6, 2001, a group of runners began circling the sixth deck of the Byula Orlova as we steamed towards Neko Harbor. With each lap we were treated to giant floating icebergs, or whales spouting in the distance, or seals sticking their heads up to see what we were doing, and penguins playing beside the ship. We ran 400 times around the deck as the ship rolled and the waves crashed. We ran through the snow and wind. We ran because to not have run would have meant admitting defeat.

At 3:30 PM another group started running on the fifth deck. At 11:50 PM two runners ran in the light of the midnight sun. The next morning at 5:30 and 10 am [after a third pasta dinner] the rest of the field gathered to compete. Later that evening a woman ran a 1/2 marathon while her husband counted laps. And finally, after midnight of the second day, a young man named Zack ran his solitary marathon in the middle of the night.

What does it all mean? I’m not sure. I know that I have never felt more a part of something. I have never felt more connected to a group of people whose spirits could not be vanquished. I have never believed more deeply in the power of the will of a bunch of people who would not let their dream die. And I have never been more proud to be a part of the running community.

As the commercial says: Runners… yeah… we’re different.

EPILOG: February 28, 2014

The wonderful Lyubov Orlova’s fate has not been good since we were on her. Read the latest: Orlova becomes Ghost Ship

Friday Favorite: The Endurance Factor

At the Antarctica Marathon, you must sometimes deal with defeat before knowing if you’ve succeeded.

john neko standingThere’s a reason why Antarctica was the last continent on which a marathon was staged: The chance for success there is always overshadowed by the near certainty of failure. Even the greatest Antarctica explorers have learned this the hard way. Some, like the legendary Ernest Shackleton, whose ship, the Endurance, was trapped for 10 months in the waters off the continent, are remembered more by the magnitude of their response to hardship than by the scale of their success.

The Antarctica Marathon offers runners the same sort of challenge. You travel hours by plane, then days by boat, and still have no idea what you’ll find when you arrive. It may be a balmy 27 degrees, or you could be met by a blizzard, and there’s no way of knowing ahead of time. Then there’s the race. It starts on the dirt roads that connect various research stations, continues 479 feet up Collins Glacier over a half mile, and back down again – not an easy course even on the best of days.

I know a little of the marathon’s extremes firsthand. In 2001, I ran the Antarctica Marathon that nearly wasn’t (because of wind conditions we couldn’t dock, so we ran 422 laps on the ship’s deck). In 2003, the island yielded to us and we ran in gale-force winds and amid six-foot snowdrifts. So when I returned in late February, it was with the certainty that there are no guarantees in Antarctica, and nothing is taken for granted.

Such was the case when William Tan, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist from Singapore, came to race the 2005 Antarctica Marathon. Thom Gilligan of Marathon Tours (the organizers of the event) afforded Tan the same opportunity as every other runner: Show up with the best you have and hope it’s good enough. The difference was that Tan was in a wheelchair.

Tan’s preparations were as thorough as they could be. He’d equipped his racing chair with studded snow tires and skis, and ice axes for the glacier.

But this is Antarctica. And this year there was no snow on King George Island, only muddy hills and exposed rocks. None of Tan’s preparations were of any use to him.

His racing gloves were quickly shredded by the sharp studs on his wheels as he pushed himself forward, often inches at a time. Two hours and 29 minutes into the race, he had barely covered five miles. The marathon was out of reach.

Three hours and 20 minutes later, Tan crossed the finish line having completed the half-marathon. There were 200 runners on the course with him. They were all conquering their fears, facing their demons, and confronting the limits of their talent, preparation, and endurance. But past the exhaustion in Tan’s face was the unmistakable look of disappointment. He wasn’t accustomed to failing at something he’d set out to do. Compromise – even a 13.1-mile, six-hour slog in a wheelchair – wasn’t enough.

In the end, Tan learned the lesson we all learn from this race. “In Antarctica you don’t just need physical strength,” he told me. “You also need courage and wisdom.” We need to know when to press on, and when to call it a day.

There are times when we will be humbled. The only question is whether we will allow ourselves to see this as a defeat or merely a setback. And that’s the lesson runners of every ability learn every time they race – the lesson we all need to learn from life.

Waddle on, friends.

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Flashback Friday: Horse With No Name

Leg-0032-Mojave-DesertAfter suffering through one of the coldest and snowiest winters in a long time, I needed to read about something different.

Sometimes going too far is just far enough

Running is a dangerous activity. It’s not that running itself is so dangerous, but being a runner allows you to consider doing things that an ordinary person wouldn’t even think of doing. At least this is how I’m explaining my latest foray into the abyss of my own ignorance. I suppose it was mostly a matter of being naive, but looking back it just seems plain stupid. I’ve always had a passion for the high desert. There’s no explanation for this passion, it just is. Maybe it’s the starkness of terrain or the seeming lifelessness of the landscape that draws me. Maybe it’s knowing that the mystery of the desert is that nearly all of it’s secrets are actually right there in front of you if you know where to look. Whatever it is, on this day I decided to venture alone onto the path of discovery.

The site was the Canyon Trail in the Chihuahuan Desert, a part of the the Bosque del Apache in south-central New Mexico. The brochure promised that this trail would be a window to the natural world and an opportunity for replenishment. It was the replenishment that I needed most. My running, while going well, had gotten lost in the chaos of schedules and airports and long days of traveling. I was in the first week of a 20 week cross-country tour. I needed the replenishment, and I needed it badly.

The trail began by winding through a dry river bed toward the mouth of Solitude Canyon. I stared at the trail and marveled that there were no tracks. No one had traveled this trail anytime lately. No one, no thing. Or so I told myself. I looked up to try to catch a glimpse of a red-tailed hawk or golden eagle, but saw only sky. I searched the canyon for signs of raven or great horned owl nests, but saw only sandstone. And soon it occurred to me. I was alone. Alone, it seems, except for the brown bats, fringed myotis and Mexican free-tailed bats that are common to the area. BATS?!

Following the trail, and the brochure, a ran my hand over the ledges, holes and crevices that shelter lizards, rattlesnakes, and pack rats. Lizards, rattlesnakes, and pack rats. Bad enough, but nothing compared to the possibility of encountering a western diamondback snake which also inhabits the area. The stupidity of a city kid alone in the desert was sinking in. I knew where I was. I knew where I wanted to go. I had NO idea what I was doing.

I tried to remember every scene of every Western movie I had ever seen. I tried to find comfort knowing that I was carrying a Swiss Army knife, which would have been fine if I had wanted to file my nails or uncork a bottle of wine, but it was hard to imagine defending myself with a plastic toothpick! The truth was, I was scared. I was out of my element, out of my comfort zone, out of my world. I could have turned back. I could have given in to the fear of whatever the desert had in store for me. I could have conceded that I had no business wandering around with nothing more than small backpack and a bottle of water. I could turned back. But I didn’t. And that’s what makes running so dangerous. For most of my adult life I was afraid of everything, and everyone.

I was afraid of getting too close to people, too far from what I knew. I worked hard to control the elements of my life and was frightened when the unanticipated occurred. Until I ran. As I runner I learned that control is an illusion. As a runner I learned that the fear outside of me was always overshadowed by the fear inside of me.

As a runner I learned that the unknown, whether that be distance or effort, or course, was to be embraced, not avoided. As I runner I learned to trust my body, my instinct, my self. As a runner, I confronted the canyon, and my fear. Hours later when I returned to my car I was relieved – to be sure – and replenished. In the loneliness of the desert with no one there to turn to, with no one there to credit or blame, with no one there to share the experience, I relearned one of running’s most important lessons. I learned again for the first time that running, for me, is less about motion, and more about movement. I learned again that my feet are the greatest teachers I have ever had.

Waddle on, friends. new_alaskalogo

Join me on my next BIG adventure.

The Great Alaskan Running Cruise

Finding the Strength

finish-lineAs one of the finish line announcers for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Series, I see a lot of people cross the finish line. In 2013 we estimated that I’d seen well over 200,000 people finish a half, or full, marathon. Most finishers just make their way across the line without much fanfare. There’s the occasional screaming and fist pumping. Once in a great while someone will do a cart-wheel across the line. [bad idea, by the way, because the timing mat may not record your time]

But this past Sunday, at the P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon finish line I saw something that truly moved me. A father was pushing a running stroller – not all that unusual. When he got about 30 yards from the finish line he stopped and took the blanket off the child in the stroller. It was not a baby in the stroller, or even a toddler. It was a child, a young girl, who was probably 8-10 years old, who was disabled. She also had a prosthetic leg.

The father gently lifted the young girl out of the stroller and set her on the ground. She was a little unstable at first as she reached out to grab his hand. When she had her footing her face lit up with a beaming smile. It was a look of pure, unabashed, joy. The father held his daughter’s hand and they walked, proudly, across the finish line. I will never forget the look of satisfaction on that young girl’s face.

It was a reminder to me, and I hope to all of you, that we need to spend more time being grateful for what we can do and less time stressing about what we can’t do. elenroose

That father’s life is very different than mine.  I don’t have a disabled child to love and care for. I don’t have to confront the emotional, physical, and financial challenges that he faces every day. And yet there are days when I think my life is difficult. I complain that I am inconvenienced by traffic or weather. I get angry when my day doesn’t go exactly as planned because something, or someone, changes the plan.

But I have a choice. That father and his young daughter don’t.

I wish I knew who they were. I wish I could congratulate them on their courage and their strength. I wish I could thank them for inspiring me to accept with grace whatever life hands me. The next time I get grumpy I’m going to remember the smile on that young girls face and say a quite word of thanks for all that I have.

Waddle on, John

Click here to get the digital version of the Penguin Chronicles every month in Competitor Magazine.

Flashback Friday: Running With Friends

cartoonrunnerstopThe “Penguin Chronicles” actually began in 1995 as a series of e-mails to a group called The Dead Runners Society. At that time the Internet was much smaller than it is now and most of the users were either academics or government workers. Marlene Cimons, a member of the DRS, sent several of the e-mail columns to the editors of “Runner’s World” and the rest is history. This column was one of the original e-mails, written in September 1995.

Over the years, I’ve seen some really fast runners. I’ve actually known some pretty fast runners. And, I guess I’d say that I’ve been acquainted with some kinda fast runners. But I’ve never been a friend with any really fast, or pretty fast or even kinda fast runners. All my friends are Penguins.

I’m not altogether sure why that is. It may be that at the beginning of races, the really fast runners talk to no one, the pretty fast runners try to talk to the really fast runners and the kinda fast runners talk to themselves. Me… I talk to the people around me. I talk to the group of runners who find themselves being pushed backwards as the field of really fast, pretty fast and kinda fast runners line up ahead of us.

I talk to Charles. Now Charles, on a good day, is a 60-minute 10K runner. Charles is the guy in lime-green spandex shorts. Charles is the guy who thinks that if he pulls his lime-green spandex shorts up high enough they will hide his sagging abdominals. They don’t. They do, however, reveal more about Charles than I wanted to know.

I talk to Will. I don’t know Will very well, but I think he must live alone. Will likes to talk. No, Will loves to talk. Mostly about Will. I’ve seen Will run a half-marathon in padded biking shorts because that’s all he had with him. That’s the way it is with Will. Don’t ask him how he’s doing, unless you have the time to hear the answer.

I talk to Lee a lot. Lee is a friend. Lee has run 70 some-odd marathons. Well, OK, Lee has been in 70-some-odd marathons. Lee ran my first marathon with me. We talked a lot that day; it took us 5 hours. Lee likes to finish before they close the course. And usually he does. But not always. But that’s the way Lee wants it. The only time I’ve ever seen Lee run fast was when I told him that Will wanted to talk to him!

I talk to people whose names I don’t know, but who I see all the time. For them, I make up a name, like “the Leprechaun Man.” The Leprechaun Man is about 70, I think, and about five feet tall. In the winter he runs in a green wool sweater with a pointy green hat. He looks like a leprechaun. He’s a downhill runner. On hilly courses he passes me on every downhill and squeals “I’m a downhill runner!!”

I talk to the panty-hose lady. I’m sure she has a real name, but the panty-hose lady works just as well. She wears panty-hose under her running shorts. She wears them when it’s 20 degrees and when it’s 80 degrees. Sometimes they are sheer to the waist, other times they change colors about the middle of her thighs. I’ve always wanted to ask her how she decides which kind to wear.

Sometimes, though, if I go to a race I’ve never done before, I don’t see any of my old friends, so I’ve developed a system to help me make new friends. This system has been thoroughly tested at running events around the country. I pass it on to you for your use.

  • Never try to talk to someone who isn’t wearing socks. I don’t know why, for sure, but people who don’t wear socks also don’t talk.cartoonrunnercut
  • Don’t try to talk to anyone with a tattoo on his or her ankle.
  • If the temperature is below freezing, don’t talk to anyone who is wearing only running shorts and cotton gloves.
  • Don’t talk to anyone who is wearing a shirt from an impressive event. They want to tell you about it.
  • Find someone who is standing alone near the back. They haven’t done many races and will welcome the company.
  • Look for people near the back wearing new shoes.
  • Look for someone wearing a shirt from some other sport, like a professional bass fishing tournament. They’ve got stories to tell.
  • For races over 5K, get into a sprinters crouch. If the person next to you looks over and does the same thing, they know less about running than you do – and you’ve found a partner for that race.

I make new friends at almost every race using this system. I met a woman from Pittsburgh who trained for a marathon as a declaration of independence from her husband and children. I met a stroke victim who could only really run with one leg while he dragged the other. I met another man whose arthritis had twisted his back so severely that he almost ran like a crab. I have laughed myself silly. I have cried my eyes out.

It doesn’t matter what the location or distance, these interesting folks are there. They are among the most interesting people I have ever met. Their stories are as fascinating as they are. Because it takes us so much longer to run the races, we have the time to tell each other our stories. I’ve told mine many times and never had one person say that they couldn’t talk because it might cost them a PR for that course!!!

And maybe, in the final analysis, that’s why all my friends are Penguins. Maybe for us, the running is just a means to an end. Maybe we’re slow because our stories are long and need time to be told. Maybe we know that we can’t hear others, or ourselves, when the blood is pounding in our ears.

Waddle on, friends.

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