Humility and Hunger: Keys to a Lifetime of Growth

Those who persist and succeed in the sport always say they weren't that good—but they got better.


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If you really want to enjoy life, you must work quietly and humbly to realize your delusions of grandeur. —Mark Helprin, a soldier of the Great War

Roger Robinson started running as a schoolboy in England in the 1950s. By 1966, running with a club as a PhD student in England, he qualified for the national team at the World Cross Country Championships. After moving to New Zealand and excelling on the road and grass there, Robinson competed as part of his new country’s national cross-country team at age 38.

Entering the masters ranks, he shone even brighter, winning the World Masters 10K Road Championships and setting masters records at the Vancouver, Boston, and New York City Marathons. Despite all of his success, one of the first things Robinson told me when we sat down to talk at 2016’s Boston Marathon was that he was never very good.

“I was almost good,” he said.

When he started in school, Robinson was enthusiastic, but today says he had limited talent and strength. “I was never the best,” he said. Nonetheless, he was persistent. “I eventually won the school crosscountry championship, but that was my last year.”

Robinson was one of the first of the lifetime competitors I interviewed for my book Run Strong, Stay Hungry, and I figured he was just unusually humble. By the 50th interview, however, I had heard this sentiment so many times that I knew there was something significant about it.

Eventually, I began to wait for it. After telling about the motivation that got them into running, often tied to their utter failure at other sports, lifetime competitors would say some variation of “I wasn’t very good.”

Here are few of them:

I came pretty close to dead last all the time. It seemed everybody was really, really good, except me. —Phil Pillin

I’m not a talented person. —Kathrine Switzer

My freshman year, I finished second to last in state cross-country. I was glad to beat somebody. —John Mirth

I was good locally, not great. I kept improving, but I wasn’t by any means one of the fastest. —Leonard Sperandeo

It’s not like I was a great success. I never went to the state meet. Never set the world on fire. I couldn’t really run fast. —Craig Christians

I wasn’t a superstar. —Kelly Kruell

I wasn’t really good until I was out of college. —Benji Durden

I was very much second tier, in their shadow. —Dave Griffin

While each of these runners went on to become very good indeed, they never thought of themselves that way. Even those with early success had a keen awareness of where they fit in the running world, how much better others were. Their vision was always aimed forward at what they could become, not what they had accomplished.

Amby Burfoot, the winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, admitted he started out quite good, winning the state 2 mile a year after he got into the sport. Nevertheless, he revealed his upward-focused mindset when talking about his ability. “When I’m asked how good I was, I say I was good enough to get to the level where I could get on the track with Gerry Lindgren and Jim Ryun and learn that I wasn’t good enough,” Burfoot said. “There were others a whole lot better than me.”

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. Phil Pillin didn’t see much external success until he was an adult runner. He barely made varsity by the end of high school and never was on the traveling team in college, yet he kept training twice a day for years and eventually ran a 2:32 marathon.

All the lifetime competitors reveal a pattern of progression. And they learned to appreciate this process of getting better as much as achieving success. This perspective becomes even more essential when the external indicators of success change.

Even Deena Kastor, despite all of her empirical success, learned to value improvement more than the glory, which is why she can continue to care and enjoy training and competing.

“Progressing, even in the smallest way, is so rewarding,” Kastor said. “That has really been the reward of running. It hasn’t really been the medals or accolades or the records. It has been those moments of clearly seeing you’ve created a stronger version of yourself.”

Those proofs of progress occur most clearly within races, but the training, the daily running, provides similar rewards as well. It is a cycle of goals, progress, and belief.

“Running is rewarding in itself, because even though you have that end goal, the progress comes every day when you get out there and put in the work,” Kastor said. “Each and every day you’re getting out there you’re actually chipping away at that goal and reinforcing a belief that it is possible.”

This belief is the essence of the growth mindset. Robinson called it the runner’s mindset. “If you do the work, you will get better,” he said. And it is along this ever-present journey toward improvement that the satisfaction lies.

“There was always that wanting,” he said. “Feeling I’d like to be better but really having to work for it. It never came easy.”

Quoting poet Robert Browning, Robinson adds:

A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what is heaven for?

Kent Lang of Missouri, age 55, has felt a similar pull, the allure of dreams just out of his grasp. “I always was dreaming,” Lang said. “Always thought I could get the school record. Could get to state. Never did. I thought maybe I could make the Olympic Trials. That was a goal. Never got there.”

Rather than disappointing him, however, those unrealized dreams kept him engaged in the sport. “I never felt like I got to my potential, so I just continued to run,” he said. “I found I could keep doing this and see if I can get better. And I did.”

Mirth attributes his longevity and continued incentive, at least in part, to never making a state track meet. His younger brother was a state champion in the 2 mile, so Mirth had that example that it was possible. (Interestingly, Mirth says his brother no longer competes.)

“My being on the edge of success, not quite achieving the state meet or All-American honors, left me hungry for proving myself,” Mirth said.

That hunger, he said, hasn’t abated for 40 years.

Even those at the very top of running success revealed that they kept motivated beyond the wins because they never reached the edge of their dreams, never ran the perfect race.

“I loved how once I’d accomplish something, another goal would energize and excite me,” Kastor said. “I always feel like there could have been more. I think that is why so many of us continue to get out there.”

Robinson said that this feeling of unrealized potential not only motivated him to improve, it is a big reason he continued as an adult. And it paid off. One of the benefits of keeping going is that you may actually get better compared to your peers, both because people age differently and because others fall away.

“There was always, ‘If I keep up at this a bit longer, I could get a bit better,’” Robinson said. “I did, relatively, I kept improving. No way I could win a world championship at 35, but I could when I was 40 and 50.”

Lang is still aware that he never was as good as he dreamed he’d be, nor as good as those he ran with in high school and college, but he’s having the last laugh. “People ask me, people I ran with, can I beat them now?” he says. And he can.

I outlasted them all.

Mastery as Motivator

Whether or not they ever got fast enough to beat others, lifetime competitors said they found continual motivation in chasing mastery. Many runners are obsessed by the challenge of getting better, of becoming the best possible runner they can be given their talents and current conditions.

No one has described the feeling and process of mastery better than Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. While most associate flow with peak out-of-body experiences, the theory explains why doing something well is so satisfying on any day.

The key, Csikszentmihalyi explains, is to find an activity for which the challenge exactly meets your skill, so you have to focus all of your mental and physical energy on it. Too low a challenge results in boredom, too high and you get overwhelmed and withdraw. Low challenge and low skill is comfortable but not very satisfying. The higher the challenge and the skill, the more you can lose yourself in the task and the more satisfying it is.

“The best moments,” Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

Flow, a feeling of being powerful and in control, occurs when we face a challenge and think, This is really hard—but I can do it. I’ve got this. This feeling of mastery is something lifetime runners crave.

Daniel Grimes, 58, an Idaho resident, described it in terms of how he feels on the run. “When I am in shape, I go for a run and it is not work,” he said. “Even if I run really hard, I don’t perceive it as work. You just feel good. That’s the thing about being in shape—even the effort feels good.”

He finds that this is what motivates him, being fit enough to maintain this feeling. That feeling, untethered from absolute, arbitrary marks, is what it is all about for him.

Kastor relishes the focus needed to match a difficult challenge. “When I get to that crux of a workout or crux of a race, it takes a lot of mental effort to get through that—that’s what thrills me,” she said. And she noted how this thrill is not linked to the clock. “We can progress in other ways that aren’t on the watch. I think that is why I still love doing this.”


Adapted from Run Strong, Stay Hungry by Jonathan Beverly with permission of VeloPress.

Run Strong, Stay Hungry