We're all Seabiscuit sometimes
Plus 6 amazing races in California, Georgia, Greece, Michigan, Texas + Vietnam
One of my role models as an athlete is a horse who’s been dead for more than 70 years.
That may sound a little strange, but it’s true.
And if you’ve ever seen the 2003 movie based on him — or even better, read the 1999 nonfiction book about him by Laura Hillenbrand — then you know why the legendary Depression-era thoroughbred is so inspiring.
You remember the story, right? After a very slow start to his racing career, when no one believed he’d ever amount to anything more than a “saddle horse” to help train younger, more promising horses, Seabiscuit is catapulted to nationwide fame in the second half of the 1930s, becoming the top money-winning horse in the country.
His unexpected string of victories culminated in 1938, when the short, buck-kneed Seabiscuit defeated War Admiral, a sleek, beautiful racehorse who had won all three races in the 1937 Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.
As Hillenbrand writes in her book’s preface, he became a cultural icon at a time when Americans desperately needed hope:
“When he raced, his fans choked local roads, poured out of special cross-country ‘Seabiscuit Limited’ trains, packed the hotels, and cleaned out the restaurants. They tucked their Roosevelt dollars into Seabiscuit wallets, bought Seabiscuit hats on Fifth Avenue, played at least nine parlor games bearing his image. Tuning in to radio broadcasts of his races was a weekend ritual across the country, drawing as many as forty million listeners.”
The really interesting question is, how did he get there? Because, as a 1- and 2-year-old, he showed almost none of the promise most thoroughbreds who go on to become champions typically demonstrate by that age.
For example: while most young racehorses can’t wait to bolt out of the barn every morning, Seabiscuit... didn’t. Sleeping was his favorite pastime, even though for most horses, sleep is something they do only in brief sessions, standing up:
“Seabiscuit was the exception. He could keel over and snooze for hours on end... While every other horse at the track raised hell demanding breakfast, he slept long and late, stretching out over the floor of his stall in such deep sedation that the grooms had to use every means in their power just to get him to stand up. He was so quiet that [his] trainers once forgot all about him and left him in a van for an entire afternoon in brutal heat while they went for a beer. They found him there hours later, pitched over on his side, blissfully asleep. No one had ever seen a horse so relaxed. The only thing Seabiscuit took seriously, aside from his beauty rest, was eating, while he did constantly, with great vigor.”
Nearly everyone missed what made him special. His trainers worked him harder, much harder than they worked their other horses, in an effort to wring the indolence out of him.
To a degree, it worked; racing Seabiscuit constantly improved his fitness dramatically. But he began showing signs of burnout. He became “edgy,” and instead of sleeping at night, he would pace around in his stall for hours on end.
“Thoroughbreds run because they love to, but when overraced they can become stale and uninterested, especially when repeatedly trounced and bullied by their riders, as Seabiscuit was,” Hillenbrand writes. And because he showed little capacity to improve, he fell through the cracks in a stable teeming with young, precocious horses the trainers would rather spend time with.
It wasn’t until a quiet man nicknamed “Silent” Tom Smith, who had trained horses for the U.S. Cavalry and worked on a cattle ranch, spotted Seabiscuit and alerted his employer Charles Howard that he absolutely had to buy this horse.
Smith, who at the time had only spent one year working with a mainstream stable, sold Howard with four sentences: “Get me that horse. He has real stuff in him. I can improve him. I’m positive.”
The rest, of course, is history. Now, I’ve compressed a lot of the events in Seabiscuit’s early life here; there’s much, much more to his story. But even these brief moments give a sense of the arc of his life — and what we all would never have been able to experience, had his potential not finally been noticed by someone.
I know I feel like Seabiscuit must have felt sometimes (especially the times when he enjoys just lounging around and eating!). It’s hard to be always “on,” always primed to perform at your absolute best, starting from zero.
But it means so much more when an athlete like Seabiscuit accomplishes what he does — someone who has been written off or underestimated (even by people who meant no harm). It shows how much potential really resides in each of us, if we’re given the chance to let it out.
With running — or with anything we want to achieve, really — if we can’t find a Tom Smith, sometimes we have to be our own Tom Smith, and see that spark that’s deep down in there.
That’s what I’m going to try as I work to get back in shape this spring — how about you? As always, let me know how your last few weeks of winter are going, and keep in touch.
Races you might love running
Chatsworth, Ga. | Sunday, April 25, 2021
A route of breathtaking beauty up in the mountains of northwest Georgia, about an hour and a half from Atlanta. Starting from the top of Fort Mountain, at an elevation of about 3,000 feet, you’ll run an out-and-back around the top of the mountain for the first half of the race, and then descend into the Cohutta Wilderness Area before crossing the finish line at scenic City Park in Chatsworth, Ga. — dropping about 2,000 feet between the start and the finish. The race takes its name in part from its connection to the Trail of Tears, as the historic route for the Trail intersects with the route you’ll run at the race.
$80 and up | Sign up here
Munising, Mich. | Sunday, June 27, 2021
With its mixture of paved backcountry roads and forest trails, this half offers runners the chance to spend 13.1 miles crossing the hills and mountain ridges of Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Seashore, within sight of its birch forests, sand dunes, cliffs and the beautiful shoreline of Lake Superior. First run back in 1976, the race originally was an 11-mile road race through Munising and the roads near the seashore, while today’s race starts at Bayshore Park and takes runners on an out-and-back course that traverses some hilly, tough terrain, filled with mountain trail switchbacks.
$60 and up | Sign up here
Truckee, Calif. | Saturday, July 31, 2021
Challenging climbs along scenic mountain trails as well as long stretches along lakeside roads just north of Lake Tahoe await runners at this race, which draws only a few hundred runners each year to this gorgeous mountain resort town. You’ll run a combination of roads and trails through the hills above the city — including a stretch across a plank bridge over a creek, where you’ll need to run single file to get across. Later, you’ll run all the way around Donner Lake, a stretch that features some of the course’s most stunning views — and is named for the infamous Donner Party, the band of settlers from Illinois who became snowbound in these mountains on their trip across the country in 1846.
$85 and up | Sign up here
Leakey, Texas | Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021
The challenging and rugged terrain of this isolated ranch nestled deep in the Texas Hill Country is the setting for this trail race, which takes place on the trails of the 7,000-acre Big Springs Ranch for Children, which provides support and safe haven for abused and neglected children. The race will take you “to the top of ridges and descend to river valleys, traverse canyons, forests and meadows, ford streams and pass Big Springs at the headwaters of the Frio River,” organizers say, adding that you’ll even trek through a stretch where you can run in the footsteps of dinosaurs — through a pair of dry riverbed areas where dozens of dinosaur tracks have been preserved.
TBD | Sign up here
Pu Luong Nature Reserve, Vietnam | Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021
The second in a three-race series of trail marathons that feature once-in-a-lifetime, jaw-dropping running tours of the mountains and jungles of Vietnam, this race unfolds along the challenging hills of Pu Luong Nature Reserve, which lies just over 100 miles from Hanoi. Filled with waterfalls, old-growth jungles, dramatic limestone cliffs and views of rice paddies in the valleys below the trails, the 43,000-acre preserve offers runners several race distances to choose from — a 25K (slightly longer than a half marathon) in addition to a 10K, 42K, 55K and 70K ultra. You may sign up for the race only or sign up for a 3-day travel package that includes overnight stays in a stilt house in one of the villages inside the reserve.
$129 and up | Sign up here
Romanós, Greece | Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021
Dean Karnazes, the legendary runner and author of “Ultramarathon Man,” recently described this 21-kilometer race (13.1 miles in metric measurement) as “the most scenic half marathon on earth.” It’s not hard to see why, as the half starts on the beach at Navarino Dunes in a place called Costa Navarino, near Messinia, and finishes along the seashore at Pylos Beach. The course follows the trail mapped by Telemachus as he searched for his missing father Odysseus, which Homer chronicled during the era of the ancient Greeks in The Odyssey.
TBD | Sign up here
A running read I loved this week
How Exercise Enhances Aging Brains. One of the things I’m most interested in, as a runner and just as a human being, is how we change, grow and transform as we get older. (If I had an aptitude for science, I’d have become a gerontologist.) This New York Times article hints at how running and other forms of aerobic exercise contribute to keener minds by rewiring our brains over time.
Words to run by
“It takes courage to push yourself to places you have never been before... to test your limits... to break through barriers. And the day came when the risk it took to stay tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
— Anaïs Nin