I used to watch runners with a sense of wonder and awe, no matter the runner, no matter the speed. Neither made any difference for me, these people were running, something I couldn’t, and so I was impressed. It is humorous to me how much this attitude has changed in the little over a year that I have been running myself. I may have several races–and a chunk over a thousand miles–under my belt now, but I am not so far off from the shuffling run-walker of previous years.
Yet now when a runner passes me, I look them over. What is their form, do they know what they are doing, are they wearing warm clothes because it is a “cold” 40 or 50 degrees, are they–in effect–a “real runner” ? And I watch the “real runners” even more closely: the fast ones, the effortless ones, the ones that seem to be gliding over the pavement as they whip by me. The other day a short (shorter than I) latino man came flying by me on the trail. I hate to make the perhaps racist comparison to the way the Tarahuma were described in Born to Run, but it begged to be made. He had a perfect fore-foot strike, a nice kick back, and most significantly a lightning fast cadence. I matched his cadence for a while, and it felt like it could easily be twice mine–and I have lately been working on developing a high cadence myself.
One thing that has changed the most in my own form and my assessment of others, is the appearance of effort. I used to think that a super fast stride, pumping arms, labored breath, were signs of good running. During my first ever 5K I pointed out to my friend that I had been developing abdominal pains while running. It turns out that instead of moving my arms back and forth, I was twisting my upper body from side to side. I realized I had borrowed this from gym classes, which are not at all about conservation of movement, but instead try to maximize the number of muscles utilized and their level of exhaustion. But good running, at least long distance, is about doing as little as possible–bringing into play as few muscles as you can, and yet moving forward, rapidly and consistently.
I have now developed a fore-foot strike that is starting to irritate me in race pictures. Instead of the nice, spread out legs of the past, with my feet off the ground, I am now always caught with one leg directly below me and the other bent up behind–taken from the front I look like I am standing, without an explanation for my look of utter exhaustion. But, I am also hurting less– much less. I used to have recurring calf pain, that is all but gone now and my fairly serious hip injury has not flared up once since changing my stride. And so, while I might look like I’m standing to my former self (and others like me), I figure I also may be starting to look like a “real runner”. At least to those other “real runners” who slow down long enough to take a look.
This discussion came out of the fact that I can watch the bridge that leads to my running trail from my work office, pictured above (although this specific shot was taken from outside the building). The man pictured appears to have excellent form.