In marathon, may 1,000 philosophies of running bloom
BOSTON — It was not a new pair of sneakers that helped Danny Dreyer get ready for Monday's Boston Marathon, but a T'ai Chi master named George Xu who hangs out most afternoons in the park.
Mr. Dreyer, an ultramarathoner who covers 50 miles in about six hours, found Mr. Xu performing the glacially paced martial art by San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Xu told Dreyer to return to him in 30 days, at which point he mysteriously pronounced him "ready to begin."
Now, when he talks about his running style, Dreyer quotes Lao Tzu. He uses terms like "mindfulness practice" and "the power of chi" (pronounced chee).
Dreyer's philosophy of ChiRunning will be one of the many schools of thought represented at Monday's marathon in Boston, an event that hosts a broader swath of running talent than perhaps any other in the world.
Amid the best runners from Kenya - who move with the unlabored grace of a Sunday stroll - there will toil impetuous accountants and plucky teachers who are here to test their characters as much as their athleticism.
Like Dreyer, many of them will carry in their consciousness a catechism of pace, stride, and breath that defines how they will move and think during the race.
The variety of running philosophies reflects not only the sheer volume of people running in America, but the delicacy with which they approach this most nuanced and individual of exercises.
"My approach combines Western physics with Eastern philosophies," says Dreyer. "It's whatever puts the runner in the moment that works."
Different approaches to running existed well before Pheidippides' journey from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC.
But a growing number of "regular runners" has spawned a sort of ecumenical assembly of running styles.
Many of them, like "Zen Running" and "ChiRunning," hew toward the spiritual, grounded on Eastern traditions of martial arts and meditation.
Others are clearly more Western. Jeff Galloway, an advocate of taking early walk breaks during a race, and Hal Higdon, like Galloway one of the nation's premier running gurus, emphasize measurable standards like repetition, frequency, and speed. Disciples of Jack Daniels follow complicated training charts and formulas based on a runner's "VDOT" (oxygen uptake) to determine with mathematical precision their ideal pace. Their theories might be the slide rule to Dreyer's lotus flower.
The reason for all of the techniques: After declaring "Rejoice! We conquer!" to his countrymen, Pheidippides keeled over.
As mundane as marathon running has become to the nation's "extreme" athletes, it still presents an enormous physical and mental challenge.
After a downhill start from the suburb of Hopkinton, runners must overcome the four-mile-long "Heartbreak Hill" just past the halfway point where a phalanx of rowdy college students are known to make sport of leaders and stragglers alike. Participants in the world's oldest marathon endure everything from unpredictable weather to miles of trolley tracks before crossing the finish line in the city's Back Bay.
In order to finish before officials start sweeping up at 6 p.m., many runners adhere to a strict mental discipline. Describing his philosophy during an interview, Dreyer springs to his feet, placing his left hand over his heart and his right index finger on his brow. "I draw my energy from the body's axis," he says, twisting. "It's a mental focus - it's a process."
The spiritual component of running is as vital to some participants here as the physical exercise. Chris Griffin, a ChiRunner from Mill Valley, Calif., describes his first exposure to the philosophy as "a moment of serendipity at the end of a long search."
Yet even Dreyer admits that successful running hinges on technique. Dreyer's method is partly modeled after Kenyan runners, whose odds of winning here approximate the likelihood that the sky will remain blue.
Because many learn to run without shoes, they do not dig their heels into the pavement like the Nike-shod masses.
To compensate, Kenyans tend to tilt forward slightly, drawing energy from gravity rather than their arms and legs. This sort of low-impact alternative is beginning to attract runners in the West.
"It's more of a shuffle now," says Paul McGovern of Methuen, Mass., about his running style. "I recover much more easily now."
Yet for every runner here thinking about his Chi, there are perhaps 100 who rely on another time-tested philosophy to get them through the rough parts.
According to Rick Wilhelm from Seattle: "There are ebbs and flows, but when it gets bad I try to find my happy place."