Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Tue, 8 May 2001 08:41:22 -0400

Look Who's Talking


This is one that got away. Written as a column for Runner's World, it didn't pass inspection at the home office.

The editors gently told me, "Change its emphasis from public speaking to private talking and thinking." The second try appears in the April RW.

I don't want the original to die unread. So here it is, dedicated to all of you who have the pulse-pounding, gut-fluttering prospect of standing before a live audience of runners or others:

WHILE WAITING my turn to speak to a group of runners, I watched another speaker suffer. The young woman was to offer only a few lines of encouragement to a group at the last warmup run before a marathon.

She, like the others, was dressed for running. Before she could say a word, her heart monitor sounded an alarm that she'd gone over her maximum running rate just by standing up to speak.

Conversing is easy, like taking a casual run. Speaking before a group is as hard -- and often as frightening -- as running a race.

A Jerry Seinfeld comedy bit observes that our number-one fear is public speaking. Death ranks second. "This means," says Seinfeld, "that at a funeral you're more afraid to give the eulogy than to be in the coffin."

Speaking, which used to be a near-death experience for me, now is my big event -- my substitute for racing. The butterflies in my belly are an expected and accepted part of the warmup.

I've gotten over any fear of the audience since no one has yet thrown overripe fruit when I've uttered an imperfect line. Everyone has come to the talk by choice, if only to see what the bylined writer looks like in person. (I'm often told, "I expected someone much taller.")

Listeners mainly want their questions answered. They rarely ask me who's doing what at the sport's highest levels but usually want to know how they can run farther, faster and safer.

Listeners sometimes come to express opposing views. In one memorable rebuttal, a man stood up after the talk and said, "I disagree with everything you had to say tonight." He then delivered a mini-speech of his own, outlining points of disagreement.

Later I realized that we'd done each other favors. I'd made him think about his own approach, and he'd reminded me that instant feedback such as this is the best part of going on the road to speak. I meet reader/runners, and in person they tell me more honestly what's on their mind than they would by letter, e-mail or phone.

No runner ever drew more adoring crowds than George Sheehan. They clustered around him for another hour before letting him leave the hall.

He drew his largest crowds and longest ovations at the Boston Marathon. One year there, after George had signed his last book and answered his last question, we left the room together.

"That was quite a show," I said. He agreed that it was, but added, "at times like this I need to remind myself that a few blocks from here I'm just another skinny Irishman."

I don't have to go that far to look like just another gnome in glasses. But running talk tells me I'm more than that.

Talking with the people who know you best and care about you most -- and sometimes just having a good talk with yourself -- tells you who you really are. No time is better spent.

Runners don't often come in large numbers to my talks. I've spoken to "crowds" as small as four.

I feel bad for the organizers when a talk doesn't draw as well as they'd hoped, but I don't feel sorry for myself. The trip would have been worthwhile for me if just one person had shown up and taken away even one tip of value.

With a small group I can set aside the prepared speech, forget about treating the talk as a "race," and simply converse with each person as if we were on an everyday run together. The heart rate calms, the gut unclenches, and seldom does an hour pass more quickly and pleasantly than this one.

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