On becoming an athlete
Learning from John Bingham + Katharine Graham's 'Personal History'
Late last week, I had the chance to talk by phone with, a writer whose fantastic newsletter covers her love for long-distance trail running, which she’s done for more than 25 years as both a coach and a runner herself — to give you an idea of how accomplished Sarah is, a few years ago she won the race known as the Grand to Grand Ultra, which unfolds over 171 miles through the Utah and Arizona desert.
During our conversation, I told her about a friend of mine who’d become an ultra runner over the past few years, and about how my jaw drops in amazement when he tells me the mileage he runs: 60, 70, sometimes 80 miles or more, over a single weekend. “I just don’t know how anyone does that,” I said to Sarah. “How can you get your body to do that?”
I’ve run 26.2 miles before — three times, actually — but pushing myself to run beyond that distance has always struck me as something only a very special, rare group of people can do. In her coaching, Sarah said, that’s exactly the leap she helped runners learn how to make: to transition from “being a hobby jogger into an athlete,” expanding their sense of possibility about what they could achieve.
Inside, I still wondered: how? How do you get to the mental place where it’s within the realm of possibility to run two (or more) marathons in a single day? How do you wrestle with the side of yourself, the voice in the back of your mind, that says you can’t do it?
Not too long ago, I watched the Meryl Streep-Tom Hanks movie The Post, which tells the story of publisher Katharine Graham’s years running The Washington Post, when it was confronted with how to handle two huge, challenging stories: the publishing of the Pentagon Papers and, of course, Watergate.
Graham had taken the reins as publisher in the early 1960s, after the breakup of her marriage and the subsequent death of her husband Philip Graham. Though, when they married, the paper was owned by her father Eugene Meyer, her husband was made publisher, a role Graham wrote later that she never imagined she’d be trusted with: “Far from troubling me that my father thought of my husband and not me, it pleased me. In fact, it never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.”
As their lives progressed forward, with children and family life taking up most of Katharine’s time and energy, Philip became the star around which everyone in the family orbited. But he also developed a nasty habit of treating her with disdain, which everyone around Katharine seemed to have noticed but herself, she shared in her 1998 autobiography Personal History:
“… I, and indeed the world, was dazzled by him. His wit, great energy, soaring imagination, and fervent desire for excellence — in himself and others — were so strong that I ignored the fact that he was frequently using that wit at my expense. Phil was often critical or cutting in his remarks when things weren’t just right — either about the house or my clothes, for example, which left lots of room for disparaging remarks. Oddly, what I never perceived at the time was that, though he was lifting me up, helping me in so many ways, he also had a way of putting me down which gradually undermined my self-confidence almost entirely.”
Though of course The Post is a dramatization and Katharine is portrayed by Meryl Streep, it’s fascinating to see how she battles her own lack of self-confidence in the movie: from a boardroom scene about an initial public offering of Washington Post Company stock, when she’s too fearful almost to say a word, to later scenes when she has to take on the U.S. government and find the strength to publish the Pentagon Papers — now, that’s a journey.
One of the biggest moments in that journey came when Philip, who was battling bipolar disorder — while conducting a long, public affair with another journalist, during which he asked Katharine for a divorce — died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In the midst of all that tragedy, Katharine was faced with the decision of who would lead the newspaper, a role she initially ruled herself out of:
The other person who stiffened my back was Luvie Pearson, who was the closest, most helpful, most ever-present friend throughout all those months. She somehow transmitted to me some of her own extraordinary strength and originality. The most important moment, one I will always remember, took place when the two of us were walking in Montrose Park, across the street from my house. I was talking about hanging on to the paper until the children, especially the boys — since in those days that’s how I thought — were old enough to run it. I recall Luvie firmly and distinctly saying, “Don’t be silly, dear. You can do it.”
“Me?” I exclaimed. “That’s impossible. I couldn’t possibly do it. You don’t know how hard and complicated it is. There’s no way I could do it.”
“Of course you can do it,” she maintained. “Cissy Patterson did it. So can you.” And to counter my disclaimers of impossibility, Luvie added, “You’ve got all these genes. It’s ridiculous to think you can’t do it. You’ve just been pushed down so far you don’t recognize what you can do.”
I find this moment so extraordinary because it seems clear how ready Katharine was to take on the job of leading the paper, yet she was the last person to realize it. (Imagine how differently history might have turned out had she not.)
You and I face challenges like this too — on a (much!) smaller scale, of course. It can be so hard to see the path forward. To see what we’re capable of before we’ve actually done it. But Michelangelo saw David in the rock, so maybe we can too, right?
John “the Penguin” Bingham, the longtime Runner’s World columnist whose name you’ll recognize if you’ve read this newsletter for a while, wrote about this in his book The Courage to Start, the story of his journey from a sedentary to an active life, which would eventually see him run dozens of marathons.
But before he did, in midlife Bingham found it impossible to see himself as the kind of person who could do something like that. Years of sports fandom had made him put athletes on a pedestal that would never be accessible to someone like himself:
I learned that athletes were different from me. The recognition they received for their efforts made my own struggles seem meaningless. Even in failure, athletes were treated with respect. If they had played well, fought hard, or simply given their all, they were rewarded with accolades. How different it was for those of us whose failures went unnoticed.
In time, those of us without athletic skills came to believe that not only were athletes stronger, faster, and more daring, they were better than we were. Living in a young boy’s world — where strength and speed and bravery were the currency of value — I felt I didn’t have a dime. So from early boyhood I sentenced myself to being a spectator.
I remained a spectator for most of my adult life, contenting myself with knowing about sports and about the people who played them. I congratulated myself for understanding the sports that I enjoyed and celebrated the victories of others as though I were a participant. But I wasn’t. As a spectator, I watched my own life with the same mixture of interest and detachment as I watched sporting events.
Fed up with himself, however, finally he decided at age 43 to make a change. (After being measured for a rental tuxedo, he discovered he had a 40-inch waist as well as a 40-inch out seam: “I had become a cube!”)
He chose the one athletic option that’s open to everyone: he started running. “After four decades of standing on the sidelines, of watching others, of being a face in the crowd, I stepped into the arena. For better or worse, I chose to become an athlete.”
We know how (wonderfully) Bingham’s story turns out; he has shared it with us in his books and hundreds of Runner’s World columns over the years. What I find most interesting about both he and Graham, though, isn’t their later success — it’s the moment when they made a choice, when they didn’t yet know how well things would turn out, when the information they had was only partial, yet they found the strength to plow forward anyway.
They could have turned away from their moment of transformation, or not seen it for what it was: a chance to live a new life, or at least to live life in a new way. We might never have known their names. But they found whatever it was they needed to find in themselves, and the rest is history, as Bingham writes:
“Being an athlete is a whole new way of encountering the world around you. Being an athlete is having a body that is a tool of exploration instead of a place of imprisonment.
This was an amazing discovery for me, and for many others I’m sure. Understanding that one’s body is something that can be used, that can be pressed into service as something other than a passive vessel that contains your vital organs, is a revelation of the first magnitude. Your body can become a partner to your dreams.”
I’m not sure I can say it any better than that! I’d love to know your thoughts and hear about your experience — have you ever encountered a moment like this, and what did you find?
As always, keep in touch and let me know how your running (and life) are going 👍
P.S.: Sarah and I plan to record an audio interview soon that I’ll share with you, on our respective newsletters and approaches to running, where we’ve come from and where (we imagine) we might be going. Stay tuned! ✨