For seeming to be an individual sport, it’s interesting how much we depend on other runners to become the runners that we are. I’m sure there are runners out there who run entirely as a solo endeavor, and don’t draw on the experience of others in their running, but I have yet to meet anyone who fits into this category.
On the surface it might be easy to think that we are mostly individuals in terms of our running, but when you dig deep and think about everyone that makes you into the runner that you are, most of us will find that it is in fact a team effort, and a very large team at that.
We are influenced by other runners in so many ways. Sometimes it’s reading inspiring stories of other’s accomplishments. (Mike Wolfe’s report of his recent FKT which he and Hal Koerner set on the John Muir Trail is an example of something I’ve read that will most certainly make me a stronger runner in the future.) Other times it’s running with people who impress us with their ability or their style of running. Sometimes we may be influenced by other runners simply by seeing them run down a trail in a fluid, seemingly perfect way. In these instances there doesn’t even need to be any verbal communication. Just watching their running stride and style is enough to make us better runners. We are even influenced by other runners (both dead and alive) when comparing ourselves to their legacy in races they have run before us.
In this sense, I could probably list thousands of people who have made me a better runner over the years, but instead I want to highlight the one who has taught me the most. The vast majority of you will not have heard of this person, although he does have a couple of short one liners in Unbreakable. The handful of readers who have actually met him and run with him will understand why I would devote most of an article to the wisdom and inspiration that is Glenn Frick.
Glenn is a friend of mine in Alaska, and at 74 years old, he runs with the fitness of a 34 year old and the wisdom of a 174 year old. He has a fiery, competitive side (he used to race quite a lot before I met him), but he mostly just likes to get out and play around in the mountains as much as possible. I have learned more about the joy of simply going out and playing in the mountains from Glenn than from anyone. It is likely that I’ve never seen anyone so at home and so happy in the mountains.
Glenn is more than just good at having fun, though. He is without a doubt the smartest and most savvy runner I have ever known. He knows when to push himself and when to rest. He knows how to use his strengths to compensate for his weaknesses. He’s so strong that he is rarely the slowest runner in the group, but when he is he has an uncanny ability to keep up even though he might be running the slowest. Sometimes I’m not ever sure how he does this. Often it involves shortcuts and other gimmicks, but usually it’s just Glenn being efficient, savvy, and wise. If he’s the slowest runner in the group he’ll always take advantage of the fact that this gives him the opportunity to see what everyone else is doing ahead of him. Most of the running I do with Glenn is off trail, following our own line along ridges and over mountain peaks. From the back of the pack, he can study what line the others are taking and use this information to always take the best line. He seems to always know when it makes the most sense to side hill a section of ridge and when to go right over the top. Using his full bag of tricks he always seems to keep up, even when he’s running with people a third his age who on paper should be significantly faster than him.
Another thing that I admire in Glenn is how intimately and completely he knows the terrain and the land where he lives and runs. The running that he does in Alaska is a very unique type of running. It has some of the steepest trails in the world, some of the thickest forests, and some of the most technical surfaces. None of these things seem to slow Glenn down. Numerous times I have been on runs with him in which the route becomes so uniquely specific to the region that, despite my eight years of running there, I can’t keep up with him and his 50-plus years.
Despite all of his abilities as a runner, he is also one of the most caring and empathetic people I have ever run with. He’ll do the tough-love thing with people that respond well to it, but when people instead need a lot of patient and gentle care to get through a tough run, he will stay out on the trail with them all day if that is what it takes. I have seen him do this on more than one occasion. Sometimes it seems like maybe he’s not doing enough to take care of people, but I’ve come to realize that even this is intentional, and that he’s taking care of them and empowering them by letting them realize that they don’t need anyone to take care of them.
Glenn has joined the majority of the runs I have done as part of my Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps, and time and time again his presence is one of the highlights of the camp for many of the participants. He has taught me so much of what I know and understand as a runner and it’s been such a pleasure the past few years to see him teach some of these things to so many other avid runners. I’ve always known how unique and inspirational Glenn is, but having other runners from all over the world come to Alaska and be inspired by Glenn has put this even more in perspective for me.
Yes, at the end of the day running is an individual sport in the sense that no one can run the miles for us, but it is also a team sport in the sense that we draw on dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of other people to have the fitness, knowledge, experience, and desire to run these miles. We gain small amounts from so many different people, and in some cases we come across individuals like Glenn that we seem to gain excessive amounts from. The critical thing is to be aware of this reality, and open to these possibilities. Observe those you interact with as a runner, and expect to learn from all of them. They don’t have to be faster than you or more experienced than you. If they have a passion for running and being out doing the same things you love being out doing, you will learn something from them and in time you will become a much stronger runner and a much stronger person.