Last week, I had the privilege of addressing an audience of local youth in a TEDx event that was hosted by National Conservation and Training Center in Shepherdstown , West Virginia. The topic was “Connection to Nature.”
For those who have never heard of TED, it stands for “Technology, Entertainment, and Design”, and the event was originally created on the West Coast with the mission of sharing ideas about the present and future worth spreading. TED talks are given all over the world on a vast array of topics, ranging from robots that fly to reading brain waves and non-invasive ultrasound surgery.
So for 18 minutes — TEDx rules are strict about this time limit – I talked to high school students from our region about a subject near and dear to me, both as a runner and parent of two young children.
As a child I loved to run and play and was always outdoors. I did not think of “nature” in any modern terms of trees, conservation, saving species. I just liked to play. This love of running as play never disappeared. In over 40 years of running I have never step foot on a treadmill. I am 45 and will be running in my 20th Boston Marathon next month.
I have run in urban streets, frozen tundra, up mountains, down canyons, in beautiful parks and trails. All gave equal pleasure.
If nature and play are no longer one and the same to many of us, partial blame can be pointed to computer video games for the kids or the local health club for fitness for grownups. Both are indoor activities that separate us from experiencing nature.
So how do we reconnect people back to nature? Perhaps we must embrace the essence of play. But first I went on to define “play”, as Dr. Stuart Brown, an expert on the topics does. He authored a book on play and founded the National Institute of Play. He writes: “Play is purposeless and all consuming. And most important its fun.”
Play is being engineered out of our lives. Every activity now has a score, a checklist goal, an end-game. When we find ourselves in a beautiful place we are compelled to photograph it or send a tweet. For runners, this is especially true with logging every workout into a comprehensive digital database.
But play is disconnected from outcomes. You are in the moment. In a scientific, data- driven world, play resists all efforts to analyze it. So my hypothesis became: maybe nature (by definition) is where play occurs?
Luckily my children climb rocks and trees, build fairy houses, play running games, and any variety of fun movement activities which often have no score.
But as we get older we get less playful and lose the purposeless nature of true play, which I think is similar to a natural experience. Each must find one’s own space and time for play, and only then will one truly embrace nature.
So what does this have to do with running? Known worldwide as the Running Philosopher in the 70’s, Dr. George Sheehan said, “Play is the process. Fitness is the product.”
Dr. Sheehan was a cardiologist. He was confused by the medical literature which showed that there was not a clear correlation between regimented exercise and reduced cardiac deaths, but the reduced risk from heart disease due to leisure physical activity was large. In other words, play is the opposite of stress.
As a young teen, I entered local running races in a playful state of mind. There was never an adult coach on the sideline or a personal trainer yelling “make it hurt” or “press harder”. But as I became a competitive runner in college, the activity was shaping into daily regimen. There was always a workout, a goal, and an outcome attached. I became fitter and faster but it came at a price – my own personal health began to waver. I got injured, showed symptoms of fatigue, and most alarming, a loss of exuberance. Running ceased to be fun.
Only after a chronic foot injury that had physicians questioning my logic to continue running did I return to the roots of running as play. In the 1930’s a Swedish coach created fartlek defined as speed play. Run with the joy of a child, sprint up hills, jump over things, relax, be in the moment. The conditions in Sweden were not conducive to the standard cinder-track ovals so they had to improvise; the countryside became the “track” and the system-less system created Olympic distance champions who loved to run.
The great running coaches of history embraced fartlek: from Percy Cerutty of Australia who had his Olympic champions such as famed barefoot miler Herb Elliott running up sand dunes in the 50s to Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand, coach of 20 Olympic medalists. Lydiard importantly created the New Zealand fartlek. He called it “jogging.” He was the first to prescribe this low-stressful activity for heart patients and formerly sedentary people, and knew it needed to be easy but fun; and thus he embraced this kind of running for virtually everyone. In fact, Bill Bowerman discovered jogging after a short vacation in New Zealand in the early 60s, and brought Lydiard’s modern contribution to running back to the U.S. He later co-authored a best-selling book called Jogging that helped spark the running revolution.
For the past 12 years, every run for me (excluding races) has been some form of a fartlek: never a struggle, never hard, never an outcome, sometimes really easy, and occasionally sprinting like a child. This activity makes me more creative, energetic, and happy. Like play, it is as important as sleeping and eating.
It is curious today that there are modern versions of “fartlek” with specific times and paces. I respectfully disagree with this “evolution” of fartlek as one is now trying to give a goal or an outcome. If there is any outcome I think it would be the transferability of fartlek to other sports which quick involve motions and power.
If one desires data on the outcomes of active play, the science is irrefutable. Playing makes you healthier, more cheerful, smarter, and more innovative. Dr. Stuart Brown’s research showed that kids who participate in unstructured running activity (play) get higher grades. Adults do better at work. People age with health and longevity.
Much of my TED talk covered running as play through the ages. I showed some videos of Sheperdstown youth running clubs, barefoot kids, community runs, and finally 80-year old Don Taylor, of West Virginia running the Freedom’s Run marathon.
In the end, each individual must find his or her own monkey bars in the playground. Barefoot running is my monkey bars and place of play. Running without shoes is both a rewarding challenge and positive experience that goes against the conventional wisdom that one’s feet need to be protected from the earth. I’m also better connected to nature through my bare soles.
The treadmill is the perfect metaphor of modern living—not just in the gym, but at work, or in the home. Stop off it now and then and experience the wonders of play. Become a child again.