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

Thu, 07 Aug 2014 06:10:44 -0400

Shouting Softly

(This piece is for my book-in-progress titled See How We Run: Best Writings from 25 Years of Running Commentary. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from July 1996)

Bert Nelson, one of the sport’s all-time great writers, penned one of the greatest lines. The Track & Field News co-founder compared race walking to “seeing who can whisper the loudest.” Fast walkers fight the natural urge to break into a run. Why else would that sport need judges?

Slow running is equally odd for the opposite reason. It seems to go against the whole purpose of running, which is to move swiftly.

The natural urge when slowing a run is to fall into a walk. Reversing the Nelson line, running slowly is like seeing who can shout the softest.

While acknowledging this quirk, I’ve long praised slow running. A better term for it might be relaxed running at any speed.

I’m not opposed to going fast. Hundreds of times in races and thousands in training I’ve run as fast as possible. Many of my stories lionize the athletes who go fastest of all.

What I’m against is a chronic, harried sense of urgency in all runs – especially when this urge spills over into a headlong rush through all of life. This is treating the clock as a constant enemy to be subdued. It’s trying to finish every 10-minute job in five.

Meyer Friedman, M.D., coined the phrase “Type-A personality.” He identified its main symptom as “hurry sickness.”

Friedman listed its traits as “excessive competitive drive, aggressiveness, impatience and a harrying sense of time urgency. Individuals displaying this pattern seem to be engaged in chronic, ceaseless and often fruitless struggle – with themselves, with others, with circumstances, with time, sometimes with life itself.”

Runners are particularly susceptible, because our sport is custom-made for hurriers. It always holds up times to beat and deadlines to meet. But if time is the cause of hurry-sickness, it can also supply the cure. We can work at relaxing by making friends with the clock.

One of the best changes I ever made to my running was switching to the time standard. I quit counting miles and simply ran for, say, an hour without knowing the distance covered.

I began running this way for a practical reason: not wanting to measure all courses and then never to stray from these routes. I soon found a better reason to run by time: relief from rushing.

Our natural urge when running by miles is to finish them as quickly as possible. Running by minutes, which can’t be rushed, we naturally adopt an unhurried pace.

Another problem can remain, even with time-running. That’s scheduling the running time too tightly – rushing to get started, hurrying away afterward, canceling the calming effect of the run itself.

The cure: take more time than needed. Provide a relaxed buffer period on either side of the run.

I set aside twice as much time as the run takes – allowing two hours total for a one-hour run, for instance. This gives me unpressured time to get ready for the run and to recover afterward.

I’ve made friends with the clock these same ways in writing, where time is also a primary raw material and where I like to “shout softly.” Each column takes only about two hours to write, but I fit that time loosely into half a day. This lets me write with a relaxed pace and tone, and leaves equally important space in the margins for unhurried planning and reflecting.

An old boss of mine, who paid me to write, didn’t appreciate the time requirements of his writers. He said, “You guys waste too much time staring out the window.”

This time isn’t wasted. Writers and runners alike need as many hours for sitting silently as for shouting softly.

UPDATE FROM 2014

I dedicated the original column to Bert Nelson, who’d died shortly before its publication. I rededicate it to him here, to thank him again for first giving me the place and time to stare out windows while writing about running.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as PDFs for e-reader devices and apps, from Lulu.com. Latest released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]

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