If you grew up in the late 80s and early 90s and had even a passing interest in basketball, you know the name Mars Blackmon.
Mars was created and portrayed by Spike Lee for one of his movies, but he became more famous as a Nike pitchman pushing Air Jordans on basketball fans all over the world. In addition to having a knack for repeating certain questions or phrases three times (“Do you know? Do you know?) he was also known to attribute Michael Jordan’s greatness on the basketball floor to the shoes Nike paid Jordan millions of dollars to wear.
While his fixation with Air Jordans ultimately proved to be a wildly successful marketing campaign, Mars seemingly missed the boat on what made Jordan great. Claiming that it’s gotta be the shoes” sold a lot of shoes, but this tongue-in-cheek caricature ignored the heart, skill, talent, determination and hard work that made Jordan the basketball player he was.
As runners, we sometimes have a tendency to fall into that Mars Blackmon mentality.
I know I have.
Running is incredibly pure and at its heart, basically simple. To keep with the Nike theme of the day, all you have to do is “just do it”. Nevertheless, there probably are a million ways we can over think running or complicate it.
When we look to the people deemed running heroes we see that they eat a particular diet, or have perfected a certain stride or breathing method or even wear a particular brand of shoe and we decide that’s their secret and that we need to exactly what they’re doing.
If that’s the case, then why haven’t the Brooks running shoes I just purchased and the reasonably healthy plant-based diet I eat magically transformed me into Scott Jurek?
Let me back up and explain. I think its great to look up to the Scott Jureks and Dean Karnazes of the world for inspiration. They consistently do amazing things as runners. And while the food they use to fuel their bodies and the gear they use to aid them on their runs certainly helps, it’s not what makes them great.
What makes them great is their desire to be great.
How they choose to fuel their bodies and the gear they use most definitely helps them attain their goals, but the inner desire to be their best is their x factor. Just like Michael Jordan, their heart, skill and determination got them to where they are. If there is a secret to their success as runners – that’s it.
So what does that have to do with the other 98% of runners?
A lot because that’s all you need too.
While very few people actually have the competitive drive Jordan had when he was at his best, there are certain physical limitations that would prevent most of us from becoming a successful professional basketball player.
No matter how hard I would have tried, I probably was only going to get so far as a 6′ 1″, 185 pound basketball player with limited lateral speed and jumping ability. There are also certain limitations that prevent me from being a better runner, but for the most part those limitations are largely mental.
Am I saying that someone like me could do what someone like Scott Jurek does? Not necessarily, but for the most part, it isn’t due to physical limitations.
I’m convinced that someone who can train for and finish a marathon could one day run a Boston qualifying time – if they really wanted it bad enough. I’m convinced that someone who runs 5ks could eventually graduate to half and full marathons – if they wanted it bad enough. I’m convinced that someone who finds themselves out of shape and overweight can change their habits, lose a lot of weight and finish a marathon – if they want it bad enough.
It’s all about their drive or desire.
But what about the shoes?
As I mentioned above, I can fall victim to the feeling that I need the best running gear to have my best runs more than I care to admit. What’s crazy about that is I grew up with an example of that type of rationale being total bunk.
I don’t have to look further than my dad for that example.
My dad is probably what Kurt Vonnegut would have called a Luddite runner. He’s never owned a high-tech running watch, his running wardrobe consists of old basketball shorts, old cotton t-shirts and the occasional technical t-shirt he either got as part of race swag or that someone bought for him and his shoes are usually from discount stores or outlets. He’s never downed an energy gel and he looks at me funny when I say something about foam rolling.
He also qualified for Boston at his first marathon.
Even though he largely fuels himself on my mom’s hearty Midwestern cooking, I know there are plenty of vegans, paleo devotees or even people who have the fanciest running gear who are half his age who couldn’t keep up with him in any type of running race (he’s in his mid 60s).
Some people may say he’s wired differently or that he has some sort of rare, God-given talent most of us lack. I don’t buy that for a minute because I’ve seen how damned hard he used to work at being a strong runner. It’s the same drive that made him one of the best high school basketball players in the state of Ohio and what propelled him into a college basketball career as a 6’2′ power forward.
Incidentally that’s the same drive Scott Jurek has to break 24 hour running records or that Dean Karnazes has to run across the country. We all have the drive to accomplish great things, we just have to decide how much we want to tap into it.
Some more cynical people might read that statement and think, “easier said than done” or “I could never do that”. Without even realizing it, those people have already dialed down how much drive they’re going to tap into.
A good healthy diet will definitely make you stronger and enable you to recover quicker and gear engineered for running can make the process of working out better – and undoubtedly more enjoyable. As someone who follows a plant-based diet and hasn’t run without my Garmin watch in over three years I feel it’s definitely important to point that out. Having said that, get all the gear you want and start eating healthier food, but don’t get caught up in thinking you actually need anything more than to tap into your desire and the willingness to put in the work to start becoming the runner you want to be.
Silence your inner Mars Blackmon and just do it.