Textbook form. You’ve heard the expression. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you embody it. But odds are you’re not so lucky. So how important is it, really? Very important, if you read the running books; not only does it decrease the risk of injury, but it leads to improved performance. Yet observe any high-profile race from the sidelines, and you’ll get the feeling that a lot of great runners aren’t doing their homework. For every example of textbook form among elites, there seems to be at least three examples of—how shall I put it?–more vernacular form.
I’ve watched, like a kid peering into a candy store, the elites at the Bolder Boulder. Short striders. Long striders. Heel strikers. Toe runners. A lot of spitting. Oh, and it goes without saying, a lot of flat-out jaw-dropping fast times. I saw elites wearing expressions more befitting of a soak in a Swedish bath—while stringing together sub-5 minute miles! I saw others who looked like they were passing a kidney stone—through their airways. I saw some with the focus of a petawatt laser. And I saw others with distracted, far-away looks, like their minds were running on a calculus problem.
So what can one take away from the viewing of such a motley parade of world class humanity?—aside from pangs of inadequacy? As I took in the gamut of running styles on display at Folsom Field, a few axioms suggested themselves. To thine own self be true. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Different strokes for different folks. But what came most to mind was relief.
You see, I’d been working at correcting my own reproachable form for years. It was my version of finishing school. I choose treadmills in sight of mirrors, so that, with governess sense, I might right my ailing form whenever the urge to be human overtook me. When I wasn’t analyzing my gait, I was counting footfalls per minute. While trying to steer my leaky raft between the Charybdis and Scallya of impeccable form, there was the bugbear of belly breathing to do battle with. The Ps and Qs of the foot strike hadn’t even been added to the curriculum. I was like the king—mentioned in Thoreau—who set himself on a course of correcting his faults, but couldn’t find the end of them. And while trying, my performance faltered and my running had become joyless, as learning becomes joyless under the tutelage of pedants and ruler-wielding nuns. Was it worth it to cross a finish line with first-lap form and a look of tranquility on my face, if I crossed that line a minute later than with stooping and grunting form? Some, who always stand on form, will say yes. I say no.
I remember the joy I felt when I PRd in the 5k. With abandon, I had burst from the gates, flying in the face of negative-split wisdom. By mile two I was rattling apart and red-lining like SpaceShipOne puncturing the ionosphere. My forward tilt was teetering on a topple. My arms were beating a front crawl in a wave pool (where the only waves were those of my gathering nausea). My hands were convulsively clutching at the grail of personal glory. The textbook was in tatters. The only book that mattered now was the record book. The Conservation of Energy—that weighty tome–had been ditched for a page-turner named the Call of the Wild. The Book of Numbers had trumped the Book of Judges.
Stand on form? Or stand on the winners’ platform? Ultramathoner Dean Karnazes said it well in this paean to his junior high coach: “Coach’s approach to running didn’t come out of any textbook; he simply instructed us to run as fast as we could until we crossed the finish line.“ That’s what I call street smarts.