20 Years, 20 Lessons

Just starting out on your own running adventure? Here are a few lessons from someone who’s been there.

In 1995, entering the New York City Marathon cost US$30. O.J. was acquitted. The world marveled over a shiny new storage format called the ‘digital versatile disc’. Bruce Willis died hard with a vengeance – in a performance that I would someday watch again and again on digital versatile disc. Also in 1995, I started running.Back then I never imagined there would come a day when I’d look back and say, “I’ve been a runner for 20 years”. Twenty years felt like an eternity. Yet here I am. As David Byrne asked (in 1981): How did I get here?
Here’s how: I started running, and kept at it.Over that time, running has paid big dividends. It’s kept me healthy and (mostly) sane. It’s strengthened my legs, my heart, my soul. It’s taken me to new places and introduced me to amazing people. In a roundabout way, it’s provided me a nice way to earn a living.Running has also paid off in one way I never expected: as lifetime mileage accrues, so does wisdom. Not just sport-specific wisdom, but the kind that can make you a better human. Running can be an effective teacher. Here are 20 of the most valuable lessons it has taught me, one for each year I’ve been at it.


Q: What do you call an impatient runner?

A: Injured.

Newbies who let their excitement get the better of them almost always wind up hurt or burned out or both. Same goes for veteran runners who decide that the best way to return from a layoff is to ‘catch up’ by doubling their usual mileage. Patience means having the discipline to delay gratification – to have a plan and stick to it. To pace yourself. Running strengthens this discipline, just as it strengthens our bodies.

No 2: Strength comes in many forms.

Lots of people equate strength with muscle. But runners are some of the strongest people I’ve ever met, and many are pencil-thin. Others are big, but not muscular. Others look so average they could be stock photo models for ‘guy or girl next door’. Runners learn quickly that appearances don’t mean a thing, because true strength comes from within. True strength, in essence, means refusing to give up. By this definition, we are all capable of great strength.

No 3: There’s value in constancy.

When I was in college, wondering what to do with my life, I ran. When I graduated and flopped around, desperate for direction, I ran. When I got a job and moved to a new state, I ran. The morning of my wedding, I woke up early and met my best man in the hotel lobby. Guess what we did?

History unfolds. We age, grow, move, laugh, love, cry. Through it all, running is there for us, whenever and wherever we need it.

No 4: You get out what you put in.

I often hear the question, “How little can I train and still be able to finish a marathon?” Recently someone asked – and I am not making this up – ”Is it doable to train for a marathon if I run only one day a week?” (Doable? Maybe. Advisable? No.)

I’ve never understood why anyone would want to run a marathon without properly training for it. Best case: they finish, eventually, and have an awful time en route. Worst case: they get hurt. But this attitude is common, and not just among wannabe marathoners. Lots of folks want something for nothing. Running doesn’t work that way, and neither does life.

No 5: Growth happens outside your comfort zone.

Friedrich Nietzsche – and, more recently, Kelly Clarkson – famously said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” I’m not entirely on board with that – I’m inclined to agree with the late writer Christopher Hitchens, who noted that in a world as harsh as ours, “There are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.”

Still, there’s something to the notion that surviving an ordeal can better equip you to handle the next. You’ll emerge tougher, stronger, and more confident.

No 6: Run with the finish line in mind.

Here’s a thought familiar to anyone who’s run a marathon: Why the hell am I doing this? It can happen not just during the race itself, but during a tough workout, or a long run, or while sitting in an ice bath. Why?

There’s always an answer, even if you momentarily lose sight of it. Something made you want to do this. Something is waiting for you at that finish line. Redemption? Vindication? Self-confidence?


Whatever it is, keep it in mind, especially when things get tough. Because when you lose sight of your ultimate goal and you can no longer answer that question – Why am I doing this? – things can get very bleak very quickly.

No 7: Savour the kilometre you’re in.

Because you don’t want to get to the finish line – a real one or that large, looming, metaphorical one – and realise that you missed great stuff along the way.

Running may be absurd. Life may be, too. But, hey – here you are, living and breathing and capable of experiencing wonderful things. Enjoy it while you can.

No 8: Without the lows, the highs wouldn’t feel nearly as good.

Some runs are bad. Some are good. A few are great – especially when you contrast them with the bad. It’s easier to shake off a bad run when I remember that I’ve had plenty of great runs in the past. Terrible races make the good ones that much sweeter. Running is a series of peaks and valleys, and so is life, and that’s okay. Actually it’s more than okay – it’s necessary.

No 9: If you’re not careful, grooves can become ruts.

And ruts lead straight to boredom and burnout.

It’s tempting to find something that works and stick with it. Over and over and over. But sooner or later, sameness becomes stultifying. Find new ways to challenge your muscles, your mind, your expectations. This is how you grow.

No 10: The first step is the hardest.

The best way to start running is to start running. That may sound stupidly obvious, but it’s tough advice to follow. Especially when it’s raining, or very cold, or very hot, or very early in the morning, or…

Often the toughest obstacles in life aren’t physical. They’re mental. Indecision, fear, doubt…These things will paralyse you. At some point you just have to get up and go.

No 11: Set your own pace.

There’s a big temptation, when you’re running in a group, to ‘keep up’. Even if the pace gets quick and you find yourself going way faster than you want or need to on that particular day. This is natural. But mindlessly following someone else’s lead is dangerous. You worry about you. Let everyone else go.

No 12: You’ve got to have faith.

In my younger, more cynical days, I believed that “faith is believing in something you know isn’t true”. (I first saw that quote in Paul Theroux’s book The Mosquito Coast, though Mark Twain has written something similar.) My philosophy now is simpler: faith is believing.

This is just as true when signing up for your first race as it is when deciding to quit your job and pursue a passion. Or to pick up and move to a new city. After a certain point you’ve made your decision and prepared as much as you can. All that’s left is to take a deep breath and step into the unknown.

No 13: Experience trumps stuff.

I like gear as much as the next guy. There’s undeniable glee in opening a box and removing a brand new pair of shoes, or walking out of a store with a rain shell you got on sale, or seeing a bag from the running shop stuffed in your mailbox. And indeed, everyone needs a good pair of running shoes and a few other essentials.

That said, I don’t remember most of the running gear I’ve acquired over the years. But I do remember, in great detail, the races I’ve run, the places running has taken me, and the people I’ve met.

No 14: The richest rewards are seldom immediate.

It’s great when you go for a run and your mind clears, your limbs loosen, you find energy you didn’t know you had. Maybe you have a creative breakthrough. But the big rewards – lower blood pressure, a healthier weight, personal bests – come only after time and persistence. Runs won’t change your life. But running will.

No 15: Talking really helps.

I’m an introvert. I’m not very good at having conversations, or even at making small talk, unless I’m running with others. Then you can’t shut me up.

It’s amazing how easy it can be to talk when you’re on a run. The very act of running – the high heart rate, the perspiration, the endorphins – can be a sort of social lubricant. Like beer, but without the hangover. And it’s easier to talk when you aren’t looking someone in the eye, feeling self-conscious and reacting to facial expressions and body language. Thoughts just pour out. Running helped me learn to open up even when I’m not running, which my wife will tell you is amazing progress.

No 16: It’s okay to be scared.

Often at race expos, first-time marathoners will tell me they’re nervous. My response is always the same: “If you weren’t nervous, I’d be nervous”. They always laugh, but the message is sincere. Nervousness is natural and healthy, as long as you don’t let it consume you. Anxiety is a normal byproduct of facing a big challenge. Acknowledge it. Welcome it. Then take it for a run.

No 17: Confidence is good; hubris is not.

If you’re not careful, self-assurance can morph into arrogance. The former will serve you well; the latter will be your undoing. We are stronger than we think, but we all have our limits.

No 18: Sometimes things go wrong.

Here’s a hard truth: It doesn’t always matter how well you’ve prepared. You can do everything right and still not meet your goals.

Unfair? Maybe. But that’s life. You know what, though? I’ve met very few runners who let a bad race define or defeat them. Once you learn that certain things are beyond your control, you come to accept that and roll with it.

No 19: Just keep moving forward.

If life has any real purpose, I think it can be distilled into those four words: just keep moving forward. It doesn’t matter how, or even how well – sometimes that’s the only guiding principle you have left. Even when things seem hopeless, there is always a way forward. Dig deep. Find it. Persevere.

No 20: If you wait until you really need a toilet, you have waited too long.

If you learn nothing else from this article, learn this. Trust me.


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