To be a champion runner, you need two things: talent and focus. Talent is a matter of genetics. Focus is a three-pronged process:
- The long-term effort of focusing one’s life on the yearly training plan and the day-to-day workouts;
- The intermediate focus of the distance race—responding to competitors while at the same time paying attention to your own body and remembering your race strategy;
- Finally, the intense concentration of all focus and effort in the final drive to the finish line.
In this post, I’m going to write mostly about the finish line. What is it that makes some people so determined to be the first across that line? What motivated me to be first during my professional running career?
The finish line
At the end of every distance race, whether it is on the track, a rough cross country course, or at the end of a long stretch of pavement, there is a finish line. In the minutes (or seconds) when the line becomes ever closer, it becomes the competitor’s entire world. Winning a race is so simple; first, stay in front of everyone else or at least stay with the front pack; second, cross the finish line first. In this final act of focusing, the athlete’s willpower wrings out every last bit of strength from heart, lungs, and legs, and directs it towards the line. The presence of other runners, whether ahead, abreast, or surging up from behind, is an instinctive threat to a person who wants to win. Having to fight to the line against someone else allows an athlete to test his or her absolute limits.
I remember a race called the Continental Homes 10K that I did in Phoenix, Arizona, in March, 1984. It was a pancake-flat course, ideal for running fast times, and the prize money was good for a 10K race. I was deep in marathon training but backed off for a couple of days prior to the race. The only thing I remember about that race was the final straight 800m stretch, which I ran neck-and-neck with Swedish runner Midde Hamrin. The prize money for first place was $5,000; second was $2,000. Money can be a powerful motivator, but it’s hard to separate that out from the keen animal desire to be the best. Whichever it was, I know that I gave everything to cross that finish line first (in 32:14).
Most photos of me finishing races reveal the utter relief, both physical and mental, that I felt when I crossed the line and my suffering ended. On television we see a lot of exultation, but for me there was usually too much pain for the exultation to be immediate. How can the distance champions I see on televised races recover so quickly? I can only shake my head in admiration and disbelief. Perhaps, despite their amazing times, their races are often tactical and they still have untapped strength in the tank.
Giving one’s utmost at the finish isn’t always about winning, though. It’s also the innate drive some people have to excel, whether it’s in running, another sport, or any endeavor where achievement can be measured. I could not be the best in the world, but in competitions like the World Cross Country Championships I wanted to do my best. This event (which I did seven times) was always terrifying. The start of the 6K race felt like a sprint, yet I was closer to the back of the 150-woman pack than the front.
It requires a different kind of toughness and focus to push hard throughout a race when the leaders are not in sight. At the World Cross Country meets, I had to focus on that drive to the finish even if I was just part of an anonymous pack. I knew I would care, later, whether I finished 30th or 50th, and the time difference between those places could be a mere ten seconds. Moreover, this was a team event; giving my best was not just for personal satisfaction but to make a significant contribution to the team score.
At the 1983 World Cross Country Championships in Gateshead, England, I had the best cross country finish of my career, placing 12th. But I got a bronze medal. Why? Because our Canadian women’s team placed third. We were led by a brilliant silver medal run by 20-year-old Alison Wiley. But we earned our team medals because our next three scorers (me, Lynn Williams [Kanuka], and Anne Marie Malone) had given 100%. Those few seconds and places we gained by sprinting at the end were essential.
“Most truly great athletes aren’t particularly nice”
I took the quote above from a Globe and Mail article about tennis star Serena Williams. Globe writer Cathal Kelly’s masterfully written portrait of a one-of-a-kind athlete hit the mark with me because I agreed with Kelly’s assessment that “Greatness in competition requires the capacity for cruelty.”
The article, entitled “Sweet Caroline is no match for Serena Williams” (September 7, 2014), was about Williams’ “evisceration” of Danish player Caroline Wozniacki in the final of the US Open. Yet the two women are best friends off the court—in fact, today I just happened to come across an article about how Williams cheered for Wozniacki and hugged her when she crossed the finish line of the 2014 New York City marathon in 3:26. Contrast this with Kelly’s description of Williams in action:
On the playing surface, she’s a serial killer in a well-cut dress.
I thought about how I related to my Canadian competitors—women like Lynn Kanuka, Debbie Bowker (Scott), Ann Marie Malone, Lucy Smith, Sue Lee, Carole Rouillard, and others. We were friends “off the track” and loyal, supportive teammates who ran together for Canada on many track and cross country teams in the 1980s. Yet we competed fiercely against each other in Canadian Championships and qualifying races. We all wanted to be the best in any given race.
The Canadian athletes I listed above had the minds of champions. They were all “tough as nails” competitors who proved themselves many times. These women were not like some of the girls who competed in the first cross country races I ran in high school. I remember some of the awful, muddy Ontario courses where many girls would fall. Often, other girls would stop running and help someone get up out of the mud. That didn’t happen at the national or international level! The difference between elite athletes and more casual competitors lies not only in physical talent but in the burning desire to be the best.
Focusing in the long term: running as a lifestyle
Becoming a successful elite runner takes months and years of dedicated focus on running. Yet it strikes me that having a running goal, following the steps to achieve it, and then giving a 100% mental and physical effort during the race itself is much simpler than the challenges that real life throws at us.
Real life is so MESSY! Marriages and friendships can break up. You can fall out of love. Or you fall in love (or lust) with an inappropriate person. People die, have accidents, get injured, get sick. Having a lifelong job or career is increasingly rare. We are all rushing to keep up with constant technological change.
Perhaps the unpredictability of real life is the reason so many people are hooked on the simplicity of running; setting distance or time goals and following rational plans to achieve these goals. Perhaps the messiness of real life makes me look back at my years as a professional runner and say that making decisions and focusing was easier in those days.