SURVIVAL OF THE SLOWEST
Steven Pinker, in The Language Instinct, suggests
that if language didnt exist, people would be so driven
to communicate that they would create a language. So strong
is our instinct toward communication that there are almost
no recorded instances of groups of people who have not developed
a means of talking to one another.
Surely our ancestors had a running instinct as well. Its
hard to imagine a community of humans that would not have
included runners. Some, though, then as now, were just a little
slower than others.
The evidence of this instinct can be seen in children. Children
seem content to simply run. Often they arent running
to or from anything. They just run. For children, the act
of running brings such pleasure that they dont, or wont,
On the other hand, if youre looking for a reason why
some adults have lost the joy in their instinctive running,
look no further than childhood. How many times are children
told not to run? In how many paces are they not allowed
Worse yet, for some children running becomes a form of punishment,
as it did for me. In my high school, when you misbehaved in
gym class, you were sentenced to run laps. Is it any wonder
that my running instinct was buried?
When I am asked now why I started running after 40 years
of sedentary confinement, I answer that running is in my genes.
Somewhere in my genetic makeup is the DNA residue of great
hunters and bold warriors and fleet messengers. When I dig
deep enough into my soul, I am connected directly to those
who ran for their lives.
Im sure that great runners throughout history were
revered for their skill and speed. Im not convinced,
though, that all of my running ancestors were gifted. Im
sure there were penguins even then!
Had I been alive in prehistoric times, I suspect that the
members of my tribe would not have selected me to chase
down dinner. Given my ability to run, its far more likely
that I would have ended up as some other animals dinner.
But my limited talent doesnt mean I cant, or
shouldnt, run. More importantly, it doesnt mean
that Im not a runner. My terminal velocity relative
to that of others of my age and gender is the result of the
decisions I have made over the course of my life.
What is often misunderstood about those of us struggling
to reach the front of the back of the pack is that we really
are trying. We really are, at whatever our pace, doing the
best we can. Some runners, and even well meaning non-runners,
interpret our position in the pack as a measure of our effort.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Wethe few, the proud, the ploddingvery often
train as much as, or more than, faster runners. At a blistering
12-minute pace, a 20-mile week represents a major time commitment.
I do speed work and tempo runs. I do long, slow runs. I just
do them very slowly.
Its not a matter of trying. Its not a matter
of motivation. Its just a matter of speed. A fast runner
friend of mine put it succinctly when I asked him what he
thought was the limiting factor in my running future. His
answer was as insightful as it was concise: "Maybe youre
And slow I may be. But I am the best athlete I know
how to be. I am the best runner I know how to be. Every day
is an opportunity to improve. Every time I run, I try to be
better. I have given in to my running instinct. I have given
in to this passion to uncover the primal joy in running. And
I hope you will, too.
Waddle on, friends.