Advice for Grads: Lifetime Competitors Start Young

Excerpt adapted from Run Strong, Stay Hungry by Jonathan Beverly.

For most runners, graduation marks the end of competing on a team and an often difficult transition to new patterns. Many want to keep running but fall away when they lose the habit or fail to find meaningful goals and maintain the joy they discovered in school. Run Strong, Stay Hungry reveals principles that lifetime competitors use to stay in the race and love the sport for decades—attitudes and patterns that started early in life. Here are two strategies graduates can adopt to ensure they never retire.

1. Transition from a Winner/Loser Mentality to a Mastery Mindset

One of the greatest dangers to longevity in the sport is early success and recognition. When you’re good, you win and get awards. Those awards feel good, and you want more of them. On the one hand, this can motivate you to train and get better, which is a good thing. “Being successful is an adrenaline ego buzz, and it breeds more striving for success,” Boston Marathon champ Amby Burfoot said.

Some, however, get attached to those awards and accolades. Nearly every lifetime runner told me stories about talented fellow runners who no longer run because they can’t win anymore. Olympic marathoner Benji Durden cited several elites he used to run with who quit when they found they could no longer be contenders. Running, for them, never was that much fun, they told him.

For these runners, the results were the motivation and running was simply the means to an end. When this happens, the activity loses its intrinsic pleasure—the joy of doing it for its own sake—and thus serves no purpose when those rewards decline or end.

“If winning is your sole purpose, at some point, running is going to get frustrating,” Olympic marathoner Deena Kastor told me. You can’t always win, and as you age, you no longer will be able to win. As they continued in the sport, Kastor, Burfoot, and other lifetime competitors learned to love the running and competing as much as the winning.

Deena Kastor Run Strong, Stay Hungry by Jonathan Beverly

The Danger of Talent

Another danger of early success is that runners begin to believe they are talented. Parents and coaches laud their ability and tell them they have a gift. They begin to think of success as a result of who they are rather than a result of the work they have done.

The difference between an emphasis on talent versus valuing effort is the theme of psychologist Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck describes two different views of the world: the fixed mindset, which believes abilities are natural and carved in stone, or the growth mindset, which sees qualities as things you can cultivate and improve.

For runners with a fixed mindset, the purpose of running and racing becomes to prove their talent. When they race, they must win, ideally with less effort than others. If you’re a younger champion, you have to deal with a tendency to want to preserve your status as a prodigy and gifted athlete. The temptation can easily become to play it safe, not risk new challenges, and make sure you always look good, or have a good excuse.

Those with a growth mindset, however, relish difficulties as a chance to get better regardless of the outcome. Lifetime competitors tend to have a growth mindset. Instead of seeing failure as an indicator that they lacked talent, they were inspired to improve. Instead of quitting when they didn’t reach their dreams, they became, and remained, hungry.

Reach Should Exceed Your Grasp

As lifetime competitors repeatedly remarked on how ungifted they were, it became clear to me that this lack of natural ability, whether real or perceived, helped them to avoid these common pitfalls. What’s more, I began to hear how that humble perception of their skill made them hungry and how that hunger led to a love of improvement and an emphasis on mastery that has helped them continue to thrive through the decades.

Instead of starting good and trying to maintain and prove that innate skill, they learned a more important lesson: that they could get better. After telling me about not being very good, competitors would inevitably talk about how they improved. They’d tell how they got better in college or when they got out on their own and started training for road races.

Lifetime competitors reveal a pattern of progression. And they learn to appreciate this process of getting better as much as achieving success.

Run Strong, Stay Hungry by Jonathan Beverly

2. Learn to Love Running Alone

One practical way to enhance your adaptability is to learn to run alone. Nearly all the runners I interviewed said that they run most of their miles by themselves. They cite a number of reasons, from enjoying the solitude to building mental toughness, but the reason it is essential to lifetime competitors, however, appears to be primarily because it frees the runner to adapt to changing life situations and abilities.

Joan Benoit Samuelson mostly runs alone and always has. “Even when I was at the top of my game, most of my running was done on my own,” she said. She links going it alone to training by feel. By herself, she can decide how far and how fast. She is able to listen to and respond to her own body rather than to other runners, and adapt the workout at will rather than going along with the group or negotiating a change in plans.

That said, many lifetime competitors do seek out company at times. Many find they prefer to be alone on easy days and to run with others on workout days where, if they’re lucky enough to join others of similar ability, they are inspired to greater efforts.

All agreed that regardless of preference, a runner simply must be able to run alone or he or she won’t make it as a lifetime runner.

“If you can’t run alone, if you depend on a buddy, you’ll have difficulty,” author and masters runners Roger Robinson said. “You need to be self-driven.”

Benoit Samuelson pointed out that when life changes, you can’t depend on others to provide your motivation. “When you move away or can’t keep up or a group falls apart, then what do you do?” she said.

Those who haven’t learned to train alone often fall away after leaving a school team. Those who depend on a training partner too often lose the habit when the fragile relationship ends: one person’s schedule changes, one partner gets injured, one changes goals or sports, or you find you’re aging at different rates.

Learning to run alone is one of the simplest and most practical ways to ensure that you keep going for a lifetime. Becoming a solo runner helps facilitate many of the principles in this book: consistency, flexible variety, training by feel, and most of all, adaptability.

Run Strong, Stay Hungry explores 9 ways any runner can enjoy a lifelong, healthy running career as well as boost enjoyment of running and improve race performance.