Run Far, Fast

The longer the distance, the faster human beings are.

I’ve always loved track and field. I’ve loved it since I was a kid watching Michael Johnson destroy the field, as well as world records, in the 200- and 400-meter disciplines. I use the word “discipline” with its full weight here because that’s really what you must have to be world class at anything. But the older I’ve gotten the less I’ve been interested in the sprints. Anything beneath an 800-meter race just doesn’t enthrall me like it did when I was kid.

I’ve come to believe that talent, the kind no one can teach, is not the stuff that works—at least not for me. I think I’ve always felt inept when it comes to talent. I can’t dunk a basketball. I can’t throw a football 70 yards, and I can’t sprint a sub-11 second 100 meters. I walked on to my college track team and to struggled run faster than 51 seconds in the quarter-mile, which basically made me a fast girl. I’m not a talented writer. Though I’ve had two books published, the folks who bought them are people who know me, who love me. And the folks who have read them are the folks I KNOW I will walk in front of a fast-moving bus to protect. It’s a short list.

So is the list of things we hold up as awesome feats of skill when they’re not really feats of skill—not to me. As hard as he works, Usain Bolt’s becoming the fastest human being on Earth doesn’t have much to do with work ethic. Oh, I’m sure he works hard at his discipline. In fact, I know he does. But the ability to sprint that quickly doesn’t just come from practice. It mostly comes from somewhere else entirely. You can claim the gods if you want, but I’ll just be content to sit here and wonder.

Just like I wonder why the gods reach down from on high to turn a select few right and left arms into thunderbolts. The ability to throw a baseball 99 miles-per-hour, like being able to run a sub-10 second 100 meters, is not a skill. It’s a gift, a glorious gift. But running at hard pace for a long time? That’s not a gift at all. It’s a skill, and what’s more? It’s a skill that all of us can acquire.

You probably know this. Human beings, as a species, are not fast. In fact, we’re not very fast at all. We’re actually quite slow compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. We get outpaced by bears, lions, cheetahs, gazelles, antelope, wildebeests, warthogs, dogs, cats and even fuzzy brown hares. But the funny thing is we can run down ALL of these animals because we’re actually built for it.

Our feet are arched and rigid to help us absorb shock and propel ourselves forward. We have tendons running through our legs, notably the Achilles tendon, that efficiently store and release energy. Our thin hips and waist are small enough to accommodate our spines while our gluteus maximus—that ass—is large enough to keep us not only standing upright but stable. Then there’s our superpower: the ability to rid our bodies of heat.

We have roughly two million sweat glands where most other animals our ancestors were chasing over miles and miles—those antelope, lions, gazelles and wildebeest—don’t have any. We don’t have to be faster than them. We just have to keep running after them.

But the thing that makes us one of the best hunters in the world is what makes us the best runners in the world: our brains. You probably know that chasing and tracking fast-moving animals that can kill you quicker than you can blink over long distances takes intellect, perseverance, high pain tolerance, patience and resolve. Only with a well-developed brain is any of that possible.

“We see our ‘prey’ before us even if it has disappeared behind the hills or in the mist,” zoologist Bernd Heinrich said. “And it is the vision that becomes our key motivator at these moments. It is the power of visualization that enables us to reach out toward the future, whether our goal is to bring down a mammoth, a write a book or set a new record time in a race.”

Or go to college.

I read about this kid from a small village in Kenya’s Rift Valley. His name is Josephat Kipruto Koima. And, though running is the national sport, Josephat was not a runner. In fact, he hadn’t even ATTEMPTED to run any race of any kind because Josephat never wanted to run.

He was more interested in math and science and believed the only way to better his life and the life of his family was through education. He was set on going to college to become a pilot, but there are no such programs for aviation in Kenya. So he let it go until he heard about a program called KenSAP.

KenSAP is a program designed around one thesis: If you’re smart and from Kenya’s Rift Valley, they can teach you to run far and at a hard pace well enough to pique the interest of American college cross-country and distance coaches. The founders genuinely believe that anybody can run, but EVERYBODY from Kenya’s Rift Valley can run. So Josephat decided he was going to try to earn entry into the program. After all, he was already deadly smart. Now all he had to do was show he could run.

Josephat set out on just a short 20-minute run every day for two weeks before running the 1,500-meter time trial the KenSAP admissions process requires in addition to testing out in the top 1-percent of Kenya’s national high school exit exam. Josephat ran a 4:38 in the 1,500 meters to secure his spot in the program. The program not only helped prepare him for the academic rigors and culture of college in the United States but for running hard, long distances.

In just five months, Josephat lowered his 1,500-meter time to 4:17 which is on par with the America’s best boys high school milers. Josephat graduated from Williams College in 2012 with a B.A. in Economics and Mathematics where he earned All-America honors in cross country.

You might think talent had more to do with Josephat’s success than work ethic, but I’d argue otherwise. Josephat was already built to run far, fast. Just like you. Just like me. But he had to put in the work; put in the miles to run farther, faster.

Any amateur road runner will tell you speed counts for nothing if you can’t sustain it over time in race that goes for miles. And you only get the strength to do that by working at it every day without fail. You have to want it to run a fast mile, a fast 5K, a fast marathon. But it IS within your grasp—just like it was for Josephat. This is why I’ve come to love middle-distance and distance running. It has little to do with what you were given and much to do with what you earned.

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