Something that’s stuck in my mind over the years I’ve written to you are the words of George Sheehan, a cardiologist who catapulted to fame with the publication of 1978’s Running & Being, the bestselling book put him on the map as the philosopher of the running movement that was then just gaining steam.
I didn’t come across his work until the past several years — I was just a kid when he wrote his book! — but when I finally did, this left a deep impression:
“Do not tell me what to do, tell me what you do. Do not tell me what is good for me, tell me what is good for you. If, at the same time, you reveal the you in me, if you become a mirror to my inner self, then you have made a reader and a friend.”
Often, I feel the temptation to preach about how to approach running — do this, don’t do that, never miss a day of training, etc. — but I fall short of my own instructions too, more often than I’d like to admit.
This occurred to me this past week, as I was reading emails from a handful of you, writing in to share your struggles with keeping up with your training right now. A couple of you shared that you’ve just been injured, so keeping up with any sort of training plan isn’t possible right now.
The truth is, this happens to me too. As recently as yesterday — when I just didn’t feel the energy to run after getting up in the wee hours of the morning to put my son back to bed, after something had scared him — and long ago.
Back in the summer of 2001, I ran the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego, Calif. — the 26.2-miler, as they didn’t offer the half marathon until several years later. But I should put the word “ran” in quotation marks because I walked quite a bit, including an entire mile in the last few miles of the race.
Even though I crossed the finish line running, I felt ashamed. Back then, I was still only in my twenties and felt like I shouldn’t be walking these things — I should be running them, and running them hard, right?
A decade later, I found myself on Highway 1 at Big Sur, running the 21-mile race at the Big Sur Marathon — but could only truly run the first 16 miles. My legs simply gave out, there was no gas left in my tank, so I ended up walking most of the last five miles of the course.
Today I look back and realize I was way too hard on myself. I hadn’t trained in the weeks leading up to each race with the consistency I needed to really run them. Why not just allow myself to let go and enjoy the experience?
Why did I feel like it’s somehow lesser?
It feels like ancient history now, but walking hasn’t always taken a back seat to running. A little over a century ago, long-distance walking was a competitive sport that saw front-page coverage in The New York Times — far more than running, whose focus back then was on the 5K and 10K in track and field events.
There’s a wonderful book that came out several years ago called The Last Great Walk, in which author Wayne Curtis profiles tells the story of Edward Payson Weston, who took a walk in 1909 all the way from New York City to San Francisco.
Curtis tries retracing his steps a century later, somewhat in vain, as many of the places Weston traversed on foot are today crisscrossed by streets, highways and the growth of urban environments.
But throughout the book, Curtis paints a picture of a world we’ve lost, a world in which competitive walkers could make a living doing what they loved, going on foot for what we’d see today as absurdly long distances (Weston once traveled 5,000 miles on foot over about 100 days!).
The same year Weston began his cross-country trek to San Francisco, a six-day walking competition was held starting at Madison Square Garden, in which the competitors divided up $5,000 in winnings — a sum that would amount to more than $135,000 in today’s dollars.
From his twenties into his forties, Weston was a professional walker who entered competitions just like that one. Even into his fifties and sixties, he continued walking as many as 10 miles a day or more.
As he told an interviewer then:
“I feel as young as I ever did... I have always said that walking would keep a man young.” On another occasion he proclaimed that “walking is the road to health. If Ponce de León had realized its value he would not have sought the fountain of perpetual youth in Florida.”
Today, that world is long gone. But there’s no reason you and I can’t enjoy walking just as much as running, both in our own training and at running events. (A few years ago, I spoke with a friend of mine who’d recently taken up running ultra marathons; he shared with me that at races, he actually walks about 60 percent of the time.)
So, if you feel the need to slow down, don’t beat yourself up like I did back in San Diego all those years ago. I’m going to try letting go and enjoying it, and to plan out walks in the woods like I did yesterday, as author Bill Bryson described in his 1998 book A Walk in the Woods:
“Distance changes utterly when you take the world on foot. A mile becomes a long way, two miles literally considerable, ten miles whopping, fifty miles at the very limits of conception. The world, you realize, is enormous in a way that only you and a small community of fellow hikers know. Planetary scale is your little secret...
You have no engagements, commitments, obligations, or duties; no special ambitions and only the smallest, least complicated of wants; you exist in a tranquil tedium, serenely beyond the reach of exasperation, ‘far removed from the seats of strife,’ as the early explorer and botanist William Bartram put it. All that is required of you is a willingness to trudge.”
It sounds pretty wonderful, doesn’t it? I’d love to know your thoughts, and how you allow yourselves to take a break when you need it. As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running (and walking) is going.
Great walking reads
Why Walking Helps Us Think. It’s no wonder thinkers like Charles Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, William Wordsworth and Aristotle were such avid walkers, as this fascinating look explores what happens within our minds when we walk — and how each influences the other in ways we’re beginning to understand.
“When we stroll, the pace of our feet naturally vacillates with our moods and the cadence of our inner speech; at the same time, we can actively change the pace of our thoughts by deliberately walking more briskly or by slowing down.”
👉 Also, Harvard Business School agrees: Don’t Underestimate the Power of a Walk
‘The Rhythm Is Really Good For Your Brain.’ A conversation with a British TV presenter who (literally!) wrote the book on walking, her 2018 release Thinking On My Feet. With her country on lockdown for much of the past year, she’s had the chance to explore places in her native England she never knew existed — all on foot.
“I’m sure we all wake up with a million things going on in our heads, all these disjointed thoughts, worries and anxieties. For me, that part of the day, when all I have to think about is one foot going in front of the other and not falling over, creates a headspace that allows all my thoughts to settle in a way that feels much more manageable.”
‘It’s a Superpower.’ How Walking Makes Us Healthier, Happier and Brainier. The human brain has evolved to support the movement of our bodies and “therefore, if we stop moving about, it won’t work as well,” argues Shane O’Mara, a professor of experimental brain research at Ireland’s Trinity College Dublin. This joyful, exuberant jaunt through the history of how poets, creatives, thinkers and philosophers throughout history have thought of how we stoke our own creativity, as no less than T.S. Eliot, Bertrand Russell and Charles Dickens have all believed walking to be essential to their work.
“Some people, I point out, don’t think walking counts as proper exercise. ‘This is a terrible mistake,’ he says. ‘What we need to be is much more generally active over the course of the day than we are.’”
I’m a Short Afternoon Walk and You’re Putting Way Too Much Pressure on Me. This, from McSweeney’s, takes a hysterical look at what your daily walk might say to you now, after a year of you leaning on it during the coronavirus, when you might be counting on it just a little too much. 😃
“How quickly you seem to have forgotten that I actually am a stress reliever and an energy booster. I shoot endorphins throughout your brain like a confetti cannon, for crying out loud. Don’t even get me started on the way I fight off heart disease — but you never think about that anymore, do you?”
The Walking podcast
When I say this to you, you’re going to think I’m joking. But I really am recommending a podcast that’s little more than the ambient sounds recorded by journalist Jon Mooallem on walks he took in the woods over the past couple of years near his home on Bainbridge Island, Wash. I first stumbled across it last week and thought it would be terrible; it’s actually pretty pleasing to listen to, and kind of gets you excited about going for a walk.
This week’s training schedule
If you’re following our 16-week half marathon training schedule, this week we’ll follow the same mileage and schedule as last week — we’ll run about 22 to 24 miles, depending on how far you run on Sunday.
Sunday, Feb. 28 (today) — 2-3 miles
Tuesday, March 2 — 6 miles
Thursday, March 4 — 4 miles
Saturday, March 6 — 8 miles
Sunday, March 7 — 2-3 miles
Let me know how it goes out there on your run!
A nature break
A 2 1/2-minute view into what life is like for the wolves of Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park.
Words to run by
“[Walking] is the perfect way of moving if you want to see into the life of things. It is the one way of freedom. If you go to a place on anything but your own feet you are taken there too fast, and miss a thousand delicate joys that were waiting for you by the wayside.”
— Elizabeth von Arnim