Running With The Legends – a book for all runners

Last year I went away with a group of the athletes that are coached by my coach Nick Anderson and his colleagues at RunningWithUs, for a week’s warm weather training in Portugal. You can read about the week here.

The week was wonderful for a whole host of reasons – great weather, double days every day and plenty of opportunities to rest, a brilliant training group, good food – the list goes on. And in amongst all that, I enjoyed the opportunity to be a bit of a running geek. Quite a bit of time was spent with fellow runners sharing ideas and tips and experiences.

During one afternoon, as a group of us relaxed by the pool between sessions, the subject of favourite books came up and a few of the group mentioned a book called Running With The Legends. The consensus was that it was rather an inspiring tome.

So on my return I ordered a copy and eagerly started it on the train to work on the morning it arrived. It was not a disappointment.

The format is simple; 21 chapters, each one dedicated to a different runner. The book features… erm… legends of running such as Emil Zatopek, Rosa Mota, Robert de Castella, Steve Jones and Bill Rogers amongst others. And whilst it would appear that different chapters have come from different sources, based on the way the styles of the chapters varies, the basics are all the same – a short biography including how the featured athlete got started, an examination of their career and some discussion of their career highlights and a glimpse into the athlete’s training.

And yet despite the similarities of the chapters in terms of format and the obvious parallels between the runners of dedication and sacrifice necessary to become a legend of running, the thing that struck me reading this book was the diversity that the featured runners exhibit. The range of backgrounds and styles and even physical characteristics of the runners is remarkable and means that it is quite legitimate to question whether there is an ideal physical shape or ideal background for an endurance runner.

But most of all, I think that Running With The Legends is a great history of modern distance running seen through the lens of the people who were at the forefront of the sport. It is a really inspiring book and provides an easy to read insight into the lives of some of the greatest runners who have ever lived. For anyone interested in the history of long distance running and who are interested in developing a mindset that will allow them to get the most out of their running, I cannot recommend Running With The Legends enough.

The talent myth and Matthew Syed

I have just finished reading an extraordinary book and I would like to share how it has had an impact on the way I think about my running.

The idea that natural talent is the primary factor when it comes to athletic ability cannot be new to most of the people reading this (whether or not they believe it). I am a victim of assuming that those I look up to – especially runners who I admire for their speed and endurance – must be genetically superior or somehow more gifted than me. Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, argues that this is untrue.

When I met my coach for the first time I told him that I was sure I was too old to improve significantly or that – given my genetic limitations – I would not be able to run much faster than I already do. My coach gave me the same response as I heard from Bud Baldaro when I first met him: that I could improve with hard work, dedication and more running. It was a very straightforward message and I realise now that they were telling me that talent had very little, if anything, to do with how fast I could run a marathon. Hard work was the answer. Sadly the message didn’t sink in immediately and it has taken the beautifully crafted words of Syed to hammer the point home – we all have huge potential and all we need to tap into it is hard effort.

The thing that struck me most about Syed’s assertion that talent is a myth is the amount of evidence he is able to call upon to support his arguments. I won’t go into very much detail here (I’d encourage you to buy a copy and read it yourself) but naturally the really interesting passages for me are those where he writes about endurance sports. He explodes the myth that the dominance of long distance running by athletes from east Africa is something to do with their genetic abilities – he points out that indeed it is not east African’s who are ‘natural‘ distance runners, nor is it Kenyans in general who have the right genes for endurance and speed. In fact the majority of successful runners come from a really tiny region called Nandi District which contains only 1.8% of Kenya’s population but has produced about 90% of the top Kenyan runners (and about 50% of the world’s top-class Kalenjin athletes). The dominance of this region is down to opportunity and inspiration – this is a region where many, many children use running as the primary transport method to  get to and from school and where their local heroes are the stars of long distance running. To cut a long story and a very good book short, these factors along with the desire to work bloody hard at their chosen sport is what makes these people special.

So how does that relate to me and my running? Well I think that Syed’s book makes it clear that one of the reasons the talent myth is so widely believed and so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the majority of people is that it offers an excuse for mediocrity. It is all too easy to look at someone who is better than oneself in any field and reach for the consolation that we could never be as good as them because genetics have dictated that they would be better no matter what (and that therefore trying is a waste of time and effort). It is a much more bitter pill to swallow to acknowledge that the reason they are better is that they practice more or they train harder.

So for me this means that I have to shrug off the mantle of inferiority. I have to face up to the fact that I can run faster – much faster – if I dedicate myself more and train harder. It becomes a question of motivation, because it now is apparent that if I get up earlier to fit in an extra run or turn down a social invitation in order to rest before a key session or race, my running will benefit and I will get quicker. Whilst running with two club mates on Sunday this was brought home with some force when, after describing how much more running I am doing now in comparison to what I did for my last road marathon (in Paris), I was told that the modest target that I have set for Florence in November is inappropriate – his point was that if I am going to put in this much effort then I should aim for and expect a much larger improvement. So I’d better finish this off now and get to the club… I’ve got the second of my two runs today to do and a new target to set for November!