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Learning to run

Knowledge and skill make some of us faster - but good running experiences can be had by all.

In addition to writing this column, one of my greatest joys was teaching graduate courses in education. The fun for me came from assuming that most of the students probably knew more than I did about almost everything (easy to imagine) except the particular subject matter of the course. And if nothing got in their way - like grades and exams - a few of these students would actually become better educated.

Learning to run is not that much different than learning anything else. It comes down to three essentials: knowledge, skills, and experiences. Understanding the difference between them is the key to being a good teacher and, I think, a happy life-long runner.

Knowledge is, well, knowing. Knowing that Springfield is the capital of Illinois or that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. The funny thing about knowledge is that you either know something, or you don't. There's no inherent hierarchy when it comes to knowledge. In a classroom of 30 students, everyone can know the same things.

I know a lot about running. I know about anaerobic thresholds and maximum oxygen uptake. The fact that I'm a slow runner has nothing to do with my running knowledge.

Skill is performing. It's hitting a ball or playing the piano. Unlike knowledge, skill is hierarchical. If you test 30 students on any skill, one will be best and one will be worst - and half will be below average.

It's no secret that my skill as a runner is below average. And the unfortunate statistical truth for runners in races is that half of the finishers are below average.

Experiences just are. And they are unique to each individual. In school, experiences were the field trips we used to take. Some were fun. Some were boring. There's no knowledge in an experience, although you might learn something. And there's no skill acquisition in an experience, although you might get better at something. An experience is usually good or bad, and then you let it go.

My running experiences have been overwhelmingly good. With my knowledge and limited skills, I still experience running as something I enjoy and want to encourage others to do. Since there's no hierarchy in experiences, I don't worry whether my experience is better or worse than anyone else's. It's possible at the end of a race to rank people based on the quantity of their skill that day, but not on the quality of their experience.

While I enjoy learning about running and working on my skills, what I really appreciate is the experience of running. In the end, it's up to each of us to define our own experiences. We can choose to have positive experiences with limited skills or we can have negative experiences even though we have better than average skills. We've all seen the 5-K runner who finishes in just over 17 minutes only to complain that he missed his goal by four seconds. But there's also the walker who finishes that 5-K in 40 minutes and has just had the best race of his life.

What I like to teach people is that enjoying these experiences - a foggy morning run across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco or a brisk jog into the crisp winter wind along the lakefront in my hometown of Chicago - is something that anyone can learn how to do.

Waddle on, friends.

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