Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Mon, 5 Jan 2004 08:27:20 -0500

Winners Never Quit

RUNNING COMMENTARY 500

(This is the first of my writings to be left homeless at Runner's World after the magazine dropped my column. It was meant to appear in the April issue, from which I'll now disappear.)

A big lesson to learn early about running is how to win at it. Without this lesson the others never get learned. People who think of themselves as "losers" don't last long as runners.

I was lucky to last beyond the second minute of my first raceday. Everything I do now in this sport is a thank-you to my first high school coach, Dean Roe, who spoke just the right words at the critical moment.

Running my first mile race, I thought the only way to win was to stick with the leaders. Their pace chewed me up and spit me off the track after little more than a lap.

My coach rushed up to ask what was wrong, and I told him with my pained look that distance running wasn't for me. He patted me on the back and said, "You owe me one."

He didn't rub my nose in locker-room slogan of that era -- "Quitters never win, and winners never quit." He just made me promise to run another mile and not to quit it.

The way to finish, the coach said, was to run my own pace instead of someone else's. I got through the second race, reaching the first level of winning by finishing.

The aim then became to run the distance faster. I couldn't control who else was in a race and how they ran it, but I could find ways to improve my time. Improving is a higher level of winning.

Ironically, while not trying to finish first I moved steadily in that direction. While watching the watch, the better placings took care of themselves. I became a state-meet qualifier as a freshman, then in succeeding years a placer, winner and record-setter there.

Time-improvement stopped in my 20s, but the winning never has. That's because I refused to let the old times, the permanent PRs, haunt me.

Instead I adopted a line spoken by the grandest old man of our sport, Johnny Kelley, who in the 1930s and '40s was a two-time Boston Marathon winner and three-time Olympian. "I don't judge my success by what I once did," he said much later, "but by what I keep doing."

Kelley continued to run into his 90s. He achieved the highest level of winning, which is continuing long after the fastest times are run and the biggest prizes are won. That kind of winning is the best because it lasts the longest.

"Winners never quit" is true in ways that locker-room sloganeers never imagined. Runners who feel like they're still winning don't ever want to stop.

I spent my first years of running learning and practicing to win this way. I spend the later years teaching and preaching the idea that winning has little to do with position in the pack. Some of the biggest winners finish nearer to the back than the front.

This message has never been more important to hear. Today's runners find ourselves caught between two extreme views of winning. Each is equally misleading.

Flooding our eyes and ears are the words and images from the sports media that tell us, "There's only one winner, and second place is the first loser."

We see silver medalists sobbing in despair. If all but one of us is doomed to lose, why bother trying against such impossible odds?

The opposite view, the one we hear at mass-running events, is that "everyone's a winner." If this were true, all we'd have to do to win was show up. If winning were guaranteed to all of us, all the time, where's the feeling of triumph?

The truth is, winning is never automatic. Everyone CAN win but not without making the effort, and risking defeat, to earn a victory.

We all lose sometimes, and this is good and necessary. Getting past the occasional losses sweetens the victories.

Most of the runners I now see each day are new to the sport. I try to play same role with them that my first coach, Dean Roe, did with me: not letting them drop out in defeat when they're just getting started.

You never know who might catch fire as a runner and burn for a long time. If I did, anyone can.

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