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December 15, 2005

Simple Gifts

My first version of this article was written a few years ago, and I’ve published slightly different versions of it over the past two years. I think the message is appropriate for the Christmas season, and I’d like to re-tell it here.

"Simple Gifts"

One of my great frustrations about being a marathon runner is the rate at which I need to buy shoes.

Good shoes last about 400 miles before needing replacement, and for most recreational runners this life span usually works out to about two or three pairs per year.

Marathon runners, however, are a different breed. Many of us typically run more than 75 miles per week, and it’s not uncommon to buy several pairs every year. This is by far the most cost-prohibitive aspect of running.

So it’s not surprising that every time I’m at the shoe store shelling out for yet another pair, I think about one of my favorite runners of all time, Ethiopian Abebe Bikila, and consider how much money I could save by emulating him.

Bikila’s story is legendary among marathoners. He was one of the greatest marathoners in history, and his Olympic triumphs foreshadowed the domination of distance running by East African nations that has lasted over 40 years.

Prior to his competitive running career he served as an imperial bodyguard for Emperor Haile Selassie. He had only run two previous marathons before lining up at the starting line of the 1960 Rome Olympics in nothing more than a pair of shorts and a singlet- he chose to race barefoot, as he did in his youth (typical of many East African children), and as was his custom while training in the hilly farmlands of his home country.

He is best remembered as the solitary figure pulling away from the pack as darkness fell, traversing the torch-lit cobblestone streets on his approach to the stadium, winning the Olympic marathon while running barefoot. There is no better personification of everything that is simple, noble, and inspirational about running.

Bikila found more success in the years that followed, and in 1964, became the first person to win back-to-back Olympic marathon gold medals (although this time, he wore shoes).

Unfortunately, his triumphs couldn’t protect him from heartache and tragedy, in both his running and his life. He dropped out of the 1968 Olympic marathon due to an injury. About a year later he was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed and no longer able to run through the fields he loved as a child.

In 1973, he died from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 41.

This is the season when people get caught up in having more “stuff” that ostensibly makes us happier. Runners are just like everybody else in this regard.

We talk about all sorts of gadgets and methods that are certain to improve our performance: the latest supplements, the best heart-rate monitors, computer software to analyze our training programs, the most blister-proof socks or the most effective moisture-wicking clothes.

This is in addition to all of the technological advances that are found in our once-basic pair of running shoes.

Yet one of the most beautiful aspects of running is its simplicity. Unfortunately, its beauty can easily be overshadowed by materialism if we’re not careful. When we are too focused on our shoes and gadgets and gizmos, we lose sight of the greater benefit.

An old Shaker hymn says, “It’s a gift to be simple, it’s a gift to be free.” The most basic kind of simplicity and freedom is readily seen in children. We’ve all observed kids at play, and marveled at their inherent love of activity, and the pure gratification of movement.

East African children are just like American kids in this regard, yet many of them – like Bikila - are able to retain this perspective into their adulthood. In western society, many of us seem to lose our youthful enthusiasm and simple delights as we grow up.

Thankfully, running provides an opportunity to experience those emotions anytime we like. The trick is learning not to dwell on the superficial things that we think will help us run better or faster.

I like to remind myself that Abebe Bikila trained without a watch, did long runs without drinking Gatorade, and won the Olympic marathon without shoes. I like to watch my own children run around without inhibition, delighting in their bodies and the basic abilities with which they were blessed.

I’m not advocating that we all start running barefoot, but we should rediscover such simple gifts in other ways.

Leave your watch at home sometimes when you run. Savor the child-like joy of moving across the earth under your own power. Run barefoot in the grass. Stop and look at the view at the top of a hill, or gaze at the water in the stream you are crossing.

Seek out your own valley of love and delight. Be thankful for your ability to run, and take pleasure in the fact that you are able to do it. Enjoy every mile of the journey, because we never know when we may be in the homestretch.

Really, these should be the easy things to do. You don’t even need a pair of shoes.

6 comments:

robtherunner 12/15/05, 1:20 PM  

Great article as usual. You ever think about sending in some material to ultrarunning magazine, or are you under contractual obligations?

Downhillnut 12/15/05, 9:10 PM  

Love it! One of the best things about running - what keeps me going when I get tired or fed up - is that simple joy. The joy of hurtling my body through space, and marvelling that my feet keep up.

jeff 12/16/05, 9:34 AM  

beautiful, d.

funny thing, i bought my forerunner so that i could run wild and not get lost. do those two things cancel eachother out? heh

stronger 12/16/05, 11:00 AM  

Is this reverse psychology for getting the forerunner for Christmas?

Speaking of tag and children and running...One of my favorite running workouts was playing tag in a huge open field with my nephew and son.

Donald 12/16/05, 1:13 PM  

Apparently I've distorted the message a bit, so allow me to clarify...

I LOVE gadgets. They've helped my training and racing immensely.

I'm just saying that we shouldn't lose focus of the simplest benefits of running, which are really the most important.

susie 12/16/05, 3:42 PM  

A good reminder...thanks

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