The right stuff
What becomes of serious, obsessive runners
The early 1980s movie "The Right Stuff" mythologized the astronauts as adventurers whose physical and mental attributes made them uniquely qualified to pilot spacecraft to places no man had ever visited. Among runners there are also those with the right stuff; individuals determined to reach the pinnacle of race performance. These are your overachievers. Often they're at the front of major races. However, some are farther back in the pack. Although not exceptionally gifted athletes, these individuals, through sheer perseverance and hard work, try to run as fast as humanly possible.
Runners with the right stuff make their training and racing priority number one. If there is a blizzard raging and they're supposed to run a 20-miler, the weather is not an issue; they will complete the long run. Each day the question is not "if" they'll run but "when." Thoughts about running, for these individuals, occur almost every waking hour. Each workout has a definite plan, which is part of a larger program designed to put them on the starting line ready to run the best race of their life. If you want to train with them, you'll have to comply with the day's plan; if you can't run the pace or distance they want, they will leave you behind.
A year in advance they know exactly where they will be competing on any given weekend. Some schedule changes might happen among lower priority races, but the dates of their marathons are certain. If they have a 26.2-miler coming up in October, they will be running 20-milers in July. Months of weekly hill training sessions precede a serious competition on rolling terrain. When races go well they rejoice. If they fail to achieve their goal they brood, analyzing and rerunning the race mentally until they can pinpoint the cause of their failure. Then they rework their training plan to overcome their weakness or correct their fault.
The subject becomes an obsession as with each day the mind constantly returns to running. This is not to say it interferes with their life. The actual time spent running usually doesn't average more than an hour and a half a day. These individuals hold full-time jobs, are good parents and spouses and enjoy many nonrunning leisure activities. Most talk little about their sport, having discovered that running talk bores most people. While they may not say much, invariably they do a lot of reading, with special attention given to books and articles offering ideas for improvement.
Proper diet and ideal weight soon become issues. The junk food exits, and formerly shunned edibles become table fare. Whereas taste once dictated the menu, now the needs of a running body become the prime concern. The pounds disappear until their mothers look at them in dismay, but the runner knows that extra heft only wastes energy that could be used to propel legs to a faster pace. A look at the lead pack of a major marathon confirms that world class runners carry no extra weight.
When injuries happen their world tumbles down around them. They can't imagine not running. Their standard response is a plaintive wail of "Why me?" They first try to tough it out, bite the bullet and run through the pain. Unfortunately overtraining is probably the cause of their problem. The injury's persistence raises their anxiety and they become students of their ailment, talking with anyone who they think can help, and reading every scrap of information written about their condition.
They make appointments with orthopedic doctors, podiatrists, physical therapists, chiropractors, kinesiologists - anyone they think that can heal them. They don't see all these specialists at the same time, so unless their injury is dramatic, they rarely running long enough to allow for natural healing. So they try one specialist after another until they see improvement.
Deprived of their daily run and seeing their racing future evaporating before their eyes, they become morose individuals prone to whining to anyone who will give them an ear. Only fellow runners and loving family members offer genuine sympathy, and even they have their limits. Most of the world cannot see what the big deal is about not being able to run for a few weeks. When they are healthy once again, the runner is giddily happy and begins training for that next big race.
Few individuals are willing to do what it takes to discover the ultimate limitations of their running ability. Succeeding in this pursuit isn't so much dependent on being born with physical abilities but rather being able to summon the daily determination to get out the door and run what you need to run. It's not a lifestyle that one can sustain forever. Age, injuries and changing interests finally dim the desire or render the body inadequate to the task.
Much of what Dave Foley writes is autobiographical. Between 1978 and 1984, he made running his number one priority. During that time he won a couple dozen races and ran seven marathons in the 2:20s. He also discovered his limits as an athlete and gained a lifelong appreciation of what it means to be in pursuit of the right stuff.