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Posts Tagged ‘compassion’

Last night I went to listen to Chris McDougall, author of Born To Run, talk about his book and the themes that run through it. In the flesh, Chris is really imposing – I would guess he’s over 6’4” in his bare feet (of course he was in bare feet) and dressed in running kit with a buff as a bandana, he looked every bit the super-athlete. At the same time he was incredibly friendly and engaging happily signing copies of his book (my copy, which Carl at Ransacker gave me, was a little dog-eared, but I think he liked that)

Chris’ book and indeed his talk, focused on a number of themes, all skillfully woven around the mystical Tarahumara, a secretive tribe of people living deep in the Mexican wilderness, whose ability to run for hours and hours over broken terrain and up and down the canyons they call home, has become the stuff of legend. The themes included diet (and especially vegetarianism and veganism), injury prevention, barefoot running (not surprisingly), the problem with modern trainers and the concept of compassion in competition. I will certainly come back to all of these themes in due course, but for the moment I want to dwell on compassion and competition.

Chris told a brilliant story – one that I hadn’t heard before, but which was seemingly well reported – about the elite women’s race in the 2009 New York marathon. For most of the women in the elite field a win at a prestigious race like one of the ‘5 Majors’ means financial security for them and their family for life. This is the main reason that competition is so fierce – the win means everything.

As the 2009 race progressed, a familiar pattern emerged with a lead group forming, watchful of one another with each runner plotting how to nullify the perceived strengths of all the others. As the group reached the sharp end of the race, one of the elite women – 37 year old Derartu Tulu – did something that to most club-level marathoners, let alone those competing to win, would be unthinkable. At around mile 22, one runner started to fade back from the small lead group which contained Tulu. She instinctively dropped back to the stricken Paula Radcliffe and said to her “Come on. We can do it” and paced her back to the group. Tulu was encouraging and helping the one person she knew was her main competition for the top spot. Sadly Paula faded again but this time she urged Tulu not to wait for her. Tulu took Paula at her word and kicked up to the lead group, past the back markers in the group and caught and passed every woman in the race. She went on to win by quite a margin, crowning an extraordinary come-back from a traumatic childbirth and ensuring enduring fame and fortune for her family. It is further testament to this remarkable and modest woman that the only reason we know this story is that Paula Radcliffe told it after the race.

Chris drew parallels between Tulu and Scott Jurek – probably the greatest endurance runner alive today – who competes with a ferocity and tenacity that starts with his infamous wolf’s howl at the start line and continues over mind-boggling distances as he leaves all-comers in his wake. But when he finishes, far from heading to his hotel room or plush trailer, he wraps himself in a sleeping bag and waits until every runner has crossed the finish line. In the sort of 100 mile trail races Scott competes in that wait could actually be days!

I have my own little example of this. Now, I know I am a caring person but I have examined my conscience since starting to think about compassion in competition and I must admit that if I was racing and another runner faded off the pace or simply pulled up with an injury, I would be unlikely to stop – I would check that they are OK and provided I was sure they did not need medical treatment, I’d carry on (I assure you that if I ever saw someone in real distress or needing medical treatment I’d stop immediately – it is only a race after all). However early this year I ran in a trail half marathon in Portland. It was unlike anything I had done before and I had an absolute ball. The final few miles of the race saw us racing down from the top of Portland onto the shingle of Chesil Beach. I had been running with another chap for a mile or so (during which time we’d spoken a few words to each other about the race and how far we had left to go) and as we transitioned from hard trail to the shingle he lost his footing and went down like a sack of spuds. And I stopped to help him up. I didn’t think about it for a second. I stopped dead, helped him up and encouraged him as we started running again.

So I think that there is undoubtedly something about competition and compassion. My own theory is that racing the same distance over and over, with a target time or an eye on the podium, squeezes the compassion out. As it becomes harder and harder to improve there is less ‘space’ for compassion and less space for the ‘joy of running’. So I think that events (note I have not used the word ‘races’) that are not the standard 10Ks or half marathons or marathons are an essential part of running. As distance increases and terrain becomes more challenging the difference in speed between men and women and the old and the young diminishes to almost nothing, which suggests to me that this is the way we should run; together, in harmony with the environment and just for the sheer love of running… I know that my future will involve more trails and a return to running ultras – just as soon as I’ve completed my marathon ambitions (whilst being as compassionate as ever, of course!)

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