Though the New York City Marathon was cancelled yesterday, contributing writer Elizabeth Weil’s article In Shape But Out of Focus from earlier in the week struck a chord with me. (Full disclosure: Liz is also writing an article on TI to be published early next year in the New York Times Magazine.)
It’s become common for photography companies to position armies of shutterbugs the course of many road races and triathlons so you can order a photo as race memento. Unfortunately, as Liz wrote, “the list of ways these photos can and almost always do go wrong is wide and deep.” This is especially true during marathons, because the physical distress many experience after the easy opening miles shows all too well. According to action photographer, Corey Rich, “In any one stride, only 10 percent will look graceful.”
But it doesn’t take a marathon to make runners look ungainly or pained; even a jog around the neighborhood can do it. I instinctively study runners nearly any time I see them and wince on purely esthetic grounds. The poor carriage and ungainly strides I so often see contrast dramatically with how elites look. And their expressions often range from determined to pained–but seldom happy.
In part this is due to two common attitudes: (1) Running is simple; just put one foot in front of the other; and (2) No pain, no gain. In contrast, I believe fervently that movement should be an art. When it is, it simply feels great—in body, mind, and spirit.
My body has never seemed made for running. A neuromuscular issue has caused me to suffer disabling calf cramps after running just a short distance since about age 50 (The same condition limits me to about 2500 yards per session in a 25-yard pool.)
But on the rare occasion that I do take a brief run, I maintain an awareness of the impression I’d give to a studious observer. This isn’t motivated by vanity. Rather I’ve seen Haile Gebreselassie and other elites on youtube (and took a ChiRunning workshop with founder Danny Dreyer in my early 50s) and always try to channel what I’ve seen. The effort to embody grace always lifts exercise to a higher plane—as I wrote in two blogs in recent weeks.
But it also lifts my performance in races to a higher plane. Last summer, I swam four races in as many weeks between July 22 and August 11. My average place in them was better than top 10 percent of the entire field—a level I’d not attained in five years. The most satisfying of the four was the Betsy Owens 2-Mile Cable Swim in Lake Placid on August 11.
A day earlier Ous Mellouli of Tunisia had won the Olympic 10k in London’s Serpentine Lake in dominant fashion, easily pulling away from the pack in the final 500. I’d studied video of Ous—unquestionably the most beautiful elite open water swimmer in the world—prior to the race and consciously strove to emulate his form as I raced. Not only did I place 9th of about 90 entrants, but ‘channeling’ Ous also provided an utterly absorbing and satisfying immersive flow experience the entire 50 minutes I swam.
I believe so completely in the transformative potential of embodying grace that my 40-year coaching career has been devoted mainly to persuading others than Grace is learnable. And transformation can begin as soon as you make Grace a goal.