By Pete Williams
Martin Dugard is best known for immersing himself into cultures to produce best-selling books such as Into Africa and The Last Voyage of Columbus, collaborating with Mark Burnett on Survivor-related books, and chronicling his own adventures in top magazines.
But he’s also one of the most prolific endurance sports journalists in the industry, having written the book Chasing Lance and countless magazine articles that have appeared in Runner’s World, Sports Illustrated, and Esquire.
Somehow he finds the time to coach high school cross country in Southern California. In his terrific new book To Be a Runner, Dugard, who turns 50 in June, weaves a lifetime of running experiences into interesting life lessons
Q: You write about running “in the tempo zone” as a broader metaphor for life. What do you mean by that?
A: We’re going to have struggles; it goes with the territory. The trick is how you deal with it. Put yourself in the moment and no matter what you do keep everything smooth and level and not let your fears and anxiety overcome you and not burning the candles at both ends. It’s finding that place, that smooth place where you find that balance and that piece of mind and, yeah, that tempo. When you run, when you’re in a really good run where you find that rhythm and groove it just carries you and if you can find that same thing in daily life it’s just an amazing feeling.
Q: You live by the motto of “keep pushing always” and never accepting mediocrity. What’s your philosophy behind that?
A: We live in this world of people getting trophies just for showing up, just for breathing essentially, so we’ve become a culture of that accepts mediocrity, that accepts the status quo. At some point we kind of hold people at arm’s length who dare to push their limits every day but I think that’s what running is all about. When you run, just putting your shoes on and getting out the door, you’re making a choice to be a better version of yourself. And that decision is not just with running but with writing or parenting or coaching. If we push ourselves day by day to be better we change not only ourselves but the world around us.
Q: How does running help you overcome writer’s block?
A: This morning when I was writing I was in a funk. I couldn’t find the right words and everything I wrote seemed boring. I don’t know what happens but when I put my shoes on and head for the trailhead a half mile from my house, within five minutes the words started forming in my head. Something takes place when you step outside yourself where you don’t think so much but let things talk back to you. I just finished a screenplay. It wasn’t just narrative, it was actual characters and I’d go run and these characters talked to me to the point where they became real people. So when I began to write their dialogue I got back to the office and knew what to write. Running helps us organize our thoughts, our decision making process and frees us up to think and to write with a lot more clarity.
Q: You live around some beautiful trails with some dangerous wildlife. Any close calls?
A: I’ve had more close calls than I realize. I know mountain lions are out there. I never run on trails at dusk or dawn, which is prime feeding time. I’ll hear the snakes moving in the dry grass or I’ll see the paw prints and wonder if that’s a dog, coyote or mountain lion. I’ve seen them in the distance, seen bobcats. But I wouldn’t run as much if I couldn’t run on trails and that’s one of the tradeoffs. You have to suspend fears and keep your eyes and ears open, but there’s nothing like trail running. It changes your world view and just your entire day when you’re out there.
Q: What do you attribute the latest running boom to?
A: Whenever there are hard times economically running spikes and I don’t know why that is but I know running has changed. When I became a runner it was more competition driven, more people running sub 3-hour marathons that today. You see a lot of people who just like the feeling of doing a half marathon at their pace. They may walk some but they’ll see their friends and have a great day. It’s not about competition, but attempting something that’s beyond your ability and that’s where running is going.
Q: Is running an easier sell to kids today?
A: Cross-country runners are still kind of geeky but with the success of my girls team and the boys to a lesser extent, we’ve had more kids come out and just try it. They learn all of these great things that come from running, the idea of perseverance and putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll finish the goal. When I competed in high school, the girls were treated like girls, definitely considered the weaker sex. Now I coach the girls team the same way as boys, just as hard and demanding. The girls step up and I think mentally they’re tougher and they allow themselves to compete and be a little bit of a badass and change their definition of what it means to be a runner.
Q: How do get people past the notion of running as “long, slow distance?”
A: It’s really a misnomer. When Arthur Lydiard coined LSD he meant long, steady distance and that’s a difference. Even now I have runners say that since they worked hard yesterday today they’re going to just jog four miles. No, let’s go a little deeper, 85 percent instead of down to 75 percent. A couple friends of mine, women, have asked me to draw up marathon programs. They’re non-runners or at least first-time marathon runners and I asked them to do speed work. Not four 100s in 60 seconds but simple vvo2 stuff – 200 on, 100 off – and the great thing is it informs your form and that translates into your next run even if it’s a longer run. At first they don’t think they can do it and feel uncomfortable on the track. But once you introduce them to speed as opposed to volume they push themselves and get more competitive.
Q: Do you find that’s the ‘aha’ moment for many runners?
A: I totally find that. There are days I don’t get that run in the morning and I only have 25 minutes later and I need to do something. If I do something as simple as a 200 at 2-mile pace followed by a 100 jog with the same work to rest ratio within six or seven laps I’m drenched with sweat. Within 20 minutes, I’ve had a great workout, my endorphin levels are off the chart, I feel great and in that short period of time I have gotten a little more efficient.
Q: How is running a metaphor for overcoming obstacles?
A: It’s funny. When I wrote this book I didn’t set out to write it this way. I had some thoughts about running and as I wrote these essays these themes came through and I realized what a profound change running has made in my life. I road bike and mountain bike but you’re at the mercy of a machine if you get a flat. If you run, you’re in charge. It’s just you and there’s something fortifying about that. Those themes came forward and I wanted to spread the word.