What do I mean by “running with flair”?
I’m talking about what a runner in superb condition can do on a good day. I’m talking about the times when an athlete not only runs fast, but does so with style, with a combination of mental and physical effort that can include toughness, agility, surprises, foolhardiness, gutsiness, and—sometimes—the sheer beauty of the human animal at its best.
Those of my readers who watch the highest levels of track competition know that this “running with flair” isn’t seen as often in the staged races where there is a rabbit (or even multiple rabbits) whose job is leading and keeping the pace for the marquee athlete who is going after a world record. All the real racing happens when the rabbit steps off the track and the competitors have to make tactical decisions.
I admired the best female runners of my generation for their front-running. Mary Decker and Ingrid Kristensen always ran from the front, because they weren’t satisfied to be merely the best in the world; they demanded of themselves that they do their best, and if no one else in the world could run the pace, they did it alone. I was a distant second to Ingrid Kristensen at the World 15K Road Racing Championship in Monaco in 1987. She had to run the race entirely by herself, and set a new world best time for the distance of 47:17.
In racing, the distance runner has to hold back. The race must be perfectly paced; the runner has to stay right on the edge, running as fast as possible yet not so fast that anaerobic metabolism paralyzes the muscles before the finish line. One of the elite athlete’s skills is the ability to feel their own perfect pace for a certain distance. This skill can be sharpened by training with a watch, but it’s still largely an instinct—because on race day any given pace should feel easier than on a training day. Why? Partly because of being well-rested, partly because of the flood of adrenaline that competition releases, partly because of an intense desire to win.
It’s wonderful to watch a race where athletes take risks, where they toy with the sensible, even pacing that distance running demands. This gutsiness, this risk-taking is also what I mean by running with flair. I think of Alison Wiley, at age 20, coming second to the great Grete Waitz at the World Cross Country Championships in 1983. She ran at a ridiculously fast pace right from the gun, against most of the world’s best distance runners. Spectators might have initially thought she was crazy; what was she doing? She was running instinctively and courageously, testing her body to the limit, not letting her rational mind put any limits on her performance.
Sometimes athletes take risks and pay a terrible price. When I raced the Bali 10K in 1988, Liz McColgan bravely decided to go after the extra $1 million in prize money offered to a man or woman who could beat the world best times (on the road) for the distance. It was a gamble because of Bali’s terrible heat and humidity.
We were lucky to get a cooling downpour of rain early in the race, but Liz’s luck ran out as an acute attack of intestinal distress forced her to slow down dramatically near the end of the race. Although I hadn’t seen her after the gun went off, I closed rapidly on her 400m from the finish line and ended up winning the race. She normally beat me by at least a minute over that distance.
Thus do the greatest athletes play: surging is a game in which they experiment with their own bodies and test the strength of their competitors’ minds and bodies. What is demanded? Split-second decisions. Courage. Instinct. Willpower. Running with flair.
Did I ever run with flair?
Even when I was at my fittest and fastest, I never ran with perfect form. But running is not an artistic sport in which points are given for perfect technique and appearance.
I recall standing on the starting line of a university 1,500m race. One of my fellow competitors, a tall girl whom anyone would have guessed was a better runner than I, said to me in a tone that wasn’t at all nice, “How can you run with such skinny legs?”
I won the race, and probably beat her by at least two hundred metres.
I had some good racing days, when the self-confidence I gained from my punishing training schedule gave me my own kind of flair. Sometimes I could stand on the start line of a Canadian road race and know that no other woman could beat me. And I, too, was willing to run hard from the start to get a good time and prove what I could do. I used my strengths. On hilly courses my lightness made uphills relatively easy. On hot days it was an advantage to be small, too, and Toronto summers made me well-adapted to hot, humid conditions.
I knew how to play the psychological games, too.
Strike at the top of the hill! No rest—immediately push the pace when opponents are suffering. Fly down the hills—let gravity do the work. When passing a competitor, appear as relaxed as possible, with controlled, even breathing. Betray no struggle!
But near the end of the race, there is no energy to spare for cunning or disguise. Then it’s the time to become an animal, to run on instinct and guts, to give everything to get your body over the finish line before your opponent′s.
I experienced the excitement of being in some of the big American road races in the early 1980s. This was before African women were racing much. I knew that the international stars could beat me, but I was eager for the challenge of racing against them and some of the best Americans. It was thrilling to stand on a start line with a group of super-fit women, like at the Tufts 10K for Women in Boston, or the elite women’s-only start of the Lilac Bloomsday 12K in Spokane. In front of us loomed the wide, empty road that our long strides would soon be eating up. All that pent-up energy and nerves, those taut muscles rested and ready to spring! On my best days I would be part of the front pack, with only the road and the lead vehicle ahead. There was one year at Tufts (1987) when I led the race from start to finish, hearing the first mile split of 5:05 without fear because I could feel that the pace was right.
Do you have to be an elite to run with flair?
So far, I’ve written about racing with flair, and how elite athletes do this with a combination of fitness, bravery, and competitive instinct.
I defined flair partly as “the sheer beauty of the human animal at its best,” and this is why we marvel at the elites. I love watching 100m sprinters; to me their powerful musculature and explosive speed exemplify the pinnacle of the human animal in motion. What amazes me the most, though, is the way the champion 1,500m runners look at the end of their races.
For me, the 1,500m was always crippling in its anaerobic pain. Yet the best international winners can immediately smile and break into their easy victory lap, as if their unbelievable pace on the 3.75-lap race was effortless.
But there is another aspect of running with flair that isn’t dependent on being extremely talented, fast, and fit. This kind of flair might not be apparent to anyone watching you run. It’s more about experiencing a sense of joy and harmony with your body as you run. The times when everything “clicks” perfectly in a training run are more enjoyable than racing, because you don’t have to suffer the pain that giving 100% entails.
I remember doing a training run in Mundy Park with Richard Mosley about 15 years ago, when he was part of our Phoenix club. I was in my early forties and he was a talented but off-beat teenaged distance runner who dyed his hair a different colour every week and competed in pole vault as well as distance events. At that time he was faster than me, but not by much. On the day I’m remembering, we ran for perhaps 45 minutes. We kept gradually speeding up. The pace wasn’t hard for Richard, but it wasn’t effortless, either. For me, it was one of those days when my body just did what I demanded of it. I was running at a pace that was on the very edge of what I could maintain, without going over that edge, without suffering. I had a wonderful sense of power to be able to run at that speed, to match Richard’s pace. I loved the perfection of all my body’s systems—heart pumping, lungs filling, legs striding and arms swinging, all so rhythmical and united.
My body will never feel perfect again—I′m always aware of my arthritic knee, my broken link. Yet I still have those wonderful rare days when I’m immersed in the joy of running. I’m slower now, and anyone watching can detect a slight limp, but I know my joy gives my running its own kind of flair.
December 1, 2015
Today I ran 7K in Mundy Park. I’m a slow jogger for the first kilometre. But after that I feel almost like the athlete I used to be. I can still run with a long stride. I can still run on my toes and sprint. My body’s lightness and freedom spreads to my spirit, and all is in harmony.
Running with flair