The Runner's Guide To The Meaning of Life

I lead a running group in Central Park and this week one of the participants asked me to recommend one of my favorite marathon guides. Although this is not a book about technique, training, or nutrition, I have always loved The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life by Amby Burfoot.

A lifelong runner and running advocate, Amby Burfoot has been executive editor of Runner’s World magazine since 1985. He is also the author of The Principles of Running and Runner’s World Complete Book of Running. In 1968, he won the Boston Marathon, the first American to do so in 11 years.

The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life is a collection of essays which covers a range of topics including courage, goals, family, materialism and humility. It is a compact read which prompts further thoughts for the road.

Amby (AB) has stated that one of his hobbies has always been encouraging others to run:??”Start slowly in whatever event you choose,” he has said. “The best strategy is to slowly build up your strength over several years. Practice the art of thinking for yourself, and don’t be afraid to assert yourself. Listen to others but realize that ultimately you are best able to judge what is best for yourself. Above all, pay no heed to pressures leveled against you, and compete simply for the sheer enjoyment and excitement of it.”

What other advice would Amby hand out to a new beginner? I caught up with him yesterday to find out:

AM: Can you describe briefly a time in your life when you were lost?

AB: I don’t think I would say I was totally lost, but after five years of elementary school teaching, I decided I wanted to see what else the world had to offer, particularly in a non U.S. context. So I became a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador. This experience changed me forever. It taught me so much about third-world living, and about the excesses of materialism that permeate so much of American life. It also taught me that impoverished, uneducated third-world people were smart, hard working, and dedicated to improving their lives in every way possible.?

AM: Has perfectionism ever gotten in the way of you doing your job?

AB: Sometimes I over-research topics that I’m writing about. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. It takes a lot of time, and much of the material gets thrown out in the organizing, composing and self-editing process. But I think you’ve got to start with a big canvas, and then figure out what parts of the big picture are most important and relevant. If you don’t start with a wide view, you might miss something small but crucial. I find it hard to limit my perfectionism because I’m intensely curious. I just try to remind myself that I can’t be an expert in everything. I do hope to become expert enough to report and write with authority.?

AM: What helps you stay motivated for the long haul?

AB: Motivation isn’t hard for me. It comes from the things I’ve already mentioned—primarily a strong curiosity about many, many subjects.?

AM: Suppose you could talk to your 20-year-old self. What are the things you would like to tell him?

AB: Sometimes I think I’ve been too much of a loner. I’m not a good cocktail party guy, or even a good social networker in the modern sense. Early in my career, “the loneliness of the long distance runner” was unavoidable, but that’s no longer the case. I’d like to have a larger network of close friend to discuss my interests with. I’ve lived in a small Pennsylvania community for many years, and my closest friend here moved away three years ago. I miss him. I often think about moving to a larger city and looking for a wider circle of friends. I’d enjoy more “give and take” in a wider community. If I met my 20-year-old self, I’d recommend establishing this kind of networking at an earlier age.

AM: What is the single greatest piece of advice you’ve received?

AB: Trust yourself. Follow your passions. Don’t be afraid to tread far outside the mainstream. Be authentic. Tell the truth about what you’ve learned and experienced.