Somewhere in the Messiness of Life is the Stuff That Matters (Essay)

Mar 19, 2023 by Mike Magluilo
The five legends of distance running took questions from the audience. Pablo Vigil, Lasse Virén, Bob Hodge, John Dimick and Frank Shorter traveled over land and water to be here. But “here” wasn’t Boston or Boulder, London or Paris. What force in the universe drew these icons of the sport to a gymnasium in rural Vermont for an evening with local running coaches, athletes and—in my case—a mere fan and student of the sport? 

That force was Vermont Technical College’s Bob Dunkle and his long-time friend Dr. Craig Poole, past director of the Olympic Training Center and former Head Women’s Track Coach at BYU.  

I sat in the crowd listening to stories. Like the one about Frank Shorter’s shoes falling apart minutes before the start of the men’s marathon at the 1976 Summer Olympics (which he ended up winning in a backup pair); or the one about John Dimick discovering his talent as a young boy by running from bullies twice his size. 

What parallel universe had I entered? I’m a mid-pack recreational runner who barely receives a greeting when he walks into a running store, yet there I was breathing the same air as some of the heroes who influenced my love of endurance sports and inspired the running story line in my upcoming novel A Reason to Run

That parallel universe was the business side of this junketthe annual Distance Running Symposium hosted by Dunkle and his team at VTC. When I checked my notes after four hours of expert sessions on nutrition, strength training, distance training and running technique, the sessions all shared a common theme: variety.

VTC’s Hilary Linehan stressed the importance of eating throughout the day, building a plate with all food groups and choosing a colorful mix of fruits and vegetables. This common sense strategy might attract fewer clicks than the restrictive diets and fasting hacks the podcast jocks are promoting, but distance runners need as complete a variety of nutrients as possible to fuel their workouts and recovery.

Weightlifting coach Chris Polakowski described the need to continually surprise your body by varying weight, resistance and exercise order to keep your body in a state of healthy stress

Golden Harper, founder of Altra Shoes, talked about mixing up the terrain on which we run. Ditch the treadmill, track and smooth roads for trails and gravel. Harper was the first person who ever advised me to “find the potholes,” yet by this point in the program I knew why: uneven terrain builds stronger feet and lower leg muscles. 

Shorter and Vigil recounted their own training practices. Despite the advancement of science and technology since the seventies and eighties, the principles remain. The key for Shorter and Vigil was variety over the course of a typical training week: two days hard, two easy, one long run, one race day and a day of rest. 

Respecting the variety was critical: hard meant very hard. Easy meant very easy. How did they know how to pace an easy run? They didn’t time themselves, and they definitely weren't wearing heart rate monitors or sleep trackers—they’d simply run at the pace of the guy in the group who wanted to go the easiest. And the hard days? Shorter ran his last interval of the day hard enough he’d rather someone shoot him than make him do another. 

And when the audience asked the legends at the front of the room where they found motivation and perseverance, the common denominator of their responses was, once again, variety. 

Vigil laced the five different perspectives into a beautiful runner’s knot: none of these champions defined themselves by their superpower. They were fathers, brothers, sons, friends and colleagues…who ran. In addition to running, Dimick was (and remains) an artist, Hodge a librarian and author, Virén a policeman and two-time Finnish parliamentarian, Shorter a lawyer, and Vigil a bi-lingual elementary school teacher. 

Yes, these individuals inspired millions through their accomplishments on the track, road and trail, but they never would have achieved greatness without the variety of the lives they lived outside running. 

Outside the gym, I questioned the relevance of variety to a guy whose primary running goal these days is to avoid injury. The answer hit me as I scraped a mess of mid-March Vermont ice from my windshield: messiness is a form of variety, and we often spend too much time and energy scraping that messiness from our lives. 

How many areas of our lives have we optimized to the point they’ve become routine and stale? Efficiency and predictability allow me to get everything done in a day, but embracing variety, surprise and—yes, even messiness!—might lead to discovering a new favorite food, an unexpected laugh with my wife, a healthier relationship with media, a new adventure with my sons or a Strava-free route through the woods. 

Like a distance runner fighting through tough miles learns, somewhere in the messiness is the stuff that matters. My late-winter road trip last Friday taught me welcoming more variety into our lives can help us discover what that stuff is.