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“Run Simple”: a conversation with author Duncan Larkin

March 2, 2013

Last November, a Taiwanese woman interviewed me about trail running. That was the ostensible topic, anyway; four of the five questions addressed the clothing, gear, and cross-training equipment that one might use in becoming a trail runner.

Concerned by this focus on “running stuff” rather than the actual act of running, I recommended that the interviewer read the book Run Simple by Duncan Larkin.

Then I decided that I should probably read it too.

“Run Simple” is a good, provocative title, but it doesn’t mean exactly what you think. I was surprised, for example, to find that one full chapter is devoted to cross-training exercises, and another contains detailed 8- to 16-week training schedules. Wanting to ponder the nature of simplicity a bit further, I conducted an email interview with the author.

RunSimple_cover

1. The title “Run Simple” reminds me of Apple’s colloquial-sounding “Think Different” slogan. Was that parallel intentional? Would an adverb (i.e., “Run Simply”) have been too sophisticated or elegant for a book about simplicity? Chapter 6 advises runners to wear cheap clothing, even if it looks a bit shabby; did you want the title to have a rough-around-the-edges feel too? Or am I overthinking this?

The parallel between Steve Jobs’ brilliant philosophy of simplicity in terms of design and my own vis-a-vis running was not intentional. Originally, I wanted to call the book ORGANIC RUNNING, and even suggested MAO’S LITTLE RED BOOK FOR RUNNERS, but those titles were rejected by my publisher, who kept seeing the word “simplicity” in my manuscript and made the suggestion, because that’s really the overarching theme of the book. As it stands now, I like the title, because it does have a rough-around-the-edges feel and is itself minimalist (just two short words that hopefully reach out and grab people when they see the cover).

2. In the book’s opening chapter, you describe how various experiences led you to simplify your approach to running over time. (The bit about your dog burying your $25 gloves was priceless.) Aside from the fact that you’re a writer, what made you want to create a whole book about your approach?

Great question. I wanted to write this book, because I felt compelled, almost obligated, to point out something very important to my fellow runners. Why? Because I feel a strong sense of loyalty to this community and want to help give back to it in some way. As I went to expos and lined up on the starting line of races, I saw thousands of well-intentioned people who thought (and had been conditioned to believe) that they could run faster if they spent their hard-earned money on solutions. Here in the United States, we tend to think that technology can make life easier for us in all facets of our lives, but I don’t necessarily think this is the case with running. I really didn’t see the “run simple” approach going on anywhere I went. I saw ads in running magazines and a whole lot of salesmanship going on in expos for GPS watches, technical tee shirts, specially designed running shoes, and electrolyte-infused jellybeans. I saw more and more of my fellow runners donning headphones and heart-rate monitor straps. I overheard conversations about “power songs” and witnessed people poring over biometric data that they collected during their runs in the effort to draw conclusions about their running that I think are quite basic to grasp. I think offering people this perspective and getting them to at least consider a simpler approach was worthy of a book.

3. Your book argues that many runners have become overly dependent on high-tech apparel and food and gadgets and so forth. What do think are the most egregious examples of this? Live-tweeting one’s runs? Monitoring heart rate 24/7? Ingesting expensive, specially formulated recovery foods after a 3-mile jog?

One that comes to mind is the time I saw a guy line up for the start of a one-mile road race wearing headphones. I can begin to understand people who want to listen to music after six hours of running, but why do you need to listen to music for six or so minutes? Are those two songs really going help you pass the time? Can’t you get motivated from just listening to the huffing of runners around you and the roar of the crowd? Another egregious example is the time I watched a track race (3000m event, I believe) and some guy was wearing a GPS watch. It’s a track for crying out loud; you get pace feedback every lap!

4. Your sample training schedules seem good to me, but are not what I’d call “simple” — there are 16 different types of workouts listed, plus cross-training exercises. To reconcile this with the simplicity theme, I’d say that you advocate keeping each individual day relatively simple (e.g., not worrying about exact paces and heart rates) while still pushing for lots of variety in any given month of training. Is that about right? Do you think a lot of serious runners are stuck in a rut of doing essentially the same workouts every week, and need to shake things up a bit?

To me, simplicity requires some level of method. A runner can’t just be told to run simple and then left with no ideas of what that means. I put forth 16 different types of sample workouts in order to get the reader thinking about how to apply the principles I espouse. Each of the workouts map to three key concepts: “race”, “rest”, and “just run”. I don’t expect the reader to memorize these workouts and try to figure out exactly when they should be doing exactly what. However, I do want runners to ask themselves every day which of the three concepts their body and mind crave and then run accordingly. I hope that eventually, after some degree of experimentation, readers come up with their own types of runs they should be conducting on the race, rest, or just run days. I debated for a long time whether or not to put sample training plans in the book, because I think sample plans can lure people into believing in what I call “running recipes” (e.g., If I follow the plan exactly, I will reach my race goal). But I believe putting plans in the book was ultimately necessary since it can help people see how to put everything together. That being said, I think each runner needs to come up with their own plan and that their plan doesn’t necessarily have to be a daily schedule; it can be much more abstract. As to your second question: absolutely. I think many serious runners reach plateaus and don’t alter their workouts or approach that much in order to break through. Why? Because most of us are creatures of habit. We pretty much run the same routes and do the same workouts. We have our dearly held routines. Forgoing them entails taking risks, and so I believe instead of significantly altering the approach, runners rush to the store for a solution.

5. The part of the book that seems most contrary to my notion of simplicity is in Chapter 7, where you suggest creating and studying wind maps and elevation maps for your race courses. I claim that the kind of runner you’re cultivating — one who reads his/her body well without high-tech aids — can run through changes in wind and elevation simply and effectively by sticking to a constant effort (aside from any drafting opportunities that arise). To what extent is this complementary to or in conflict with your view?

Yeah, I know it seems odd that a book espousing simplicity has a runner studying the race course the day before (or running on it in training) and creating a wind/elevation map. But a race is usually a pretty important event and so why not be prepared for it? By suggesting these ideas, I’m trying to set the reader up for success and help them as much as possible reach their goal. Thoreau, no stranger to simplicity, once penned that “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” So if you are exchanging large chunks of your life training in the pursuit of a race goal, then the price to attain it is high, and therefore the person should come prepared with knowledge. Running simple doesn’t equal racing ignorant. (e.g., I didn’t know there was going to be a 20mph headwind and a mile-long hill!)

6. Your book provides training schedules, but your ultimate goal is to help people create their own schedules based upon their individual goals and bodies. I applaud this, but it will be hard for some people to make this transition. What sort of feedback on this have you gotten from readers? What are the main difficulties (if any) that they have faced?

I’ve had a few people write me to say that they PR’d after reading the book, which was music to my ears. Most people tell me that they are unable to follow the schedules to a tee, which is great, because that’s what I want. Their main challenge with going out on their own has been keeping up the confidence that they are doing the right thing on a daily basis.

7. The book also provides examples of and interviews with runners and coaches who employ principles similar to yours. Who is your all-time favorite example of a “simple runner,” and why?

It’s hard to come up with an all-time favorite “simple” runner. I guess my top choice is Japanese marathoner Yuki Kawauichi. I tried to interview him for the book, but unfortunately couldn’t connect with him. Why Kawauchi? He became a 2:08 marathoner while holding down a full-time job. His approach to training is surprisingly simple (just three structured weekly workouts: one long run, one speed session, and one soft-surface trail for recovery). He doesn’t train with gadgets; he doesn’t run on an Alter-G treadmill. He isn’t out promoting whatever product. To him, it’s all about putting in the miles and believing in yourself. I wish there were more pros like him.

8. Your main target audience for this book is people who want to achieve their racing potential. How would you modify your advice for people who aren’t particularly interested in races?

Do fewer “race” workouts in favor of more “just run” workouts. Racing is all about attaining comfort at a particular pace. If people don’t want to race, then don’t focus on that aspect, but I still would argue that this type of runner should at least do one “race” workout a week as breaking up the pace is good for preventing burnout.

9. Ultramarathons, especially trail ultras, could be considered the ultimate in simple running: enjoying nature for hours at a time, with competition and exact pace an afterthought for many participants. On the other hand, issues like refueling, maintaining the right body temperature, and seeing in the dark become more important in ultras, and can be addressed with the specialized products that you normally avoid. You’ve done a few ultras; what are your thoughts?

I recently did my first 24-hour race. I didn’t run with a headlamp (the course was lit). The only thing I carried was an 8-oz bottle. My fuel was whatever they had for me at the aid stations. I wore trainers with thousands of miles on them and my holy shirts/shorts were what I’ve been wearing for a nearly decade, so at least I practice what I preach! That being said, I think entering into the ultra realm requires some element of “gearing up”. There’s nothing wrong with getting a nice headlamp for night running and there’s nothing wrong with doing some research about finding the right fuel to consume, but I still think all runners should “gear down”. Most ultras do a great job supporting runners. Aid stations are stocked with pretty much everything a runner needs. The weight of carrying things for 100 miles, no matter how small, can add up to a significant amount, so I would suggest that ultra runners look at paring down in a race. They can best do this by experimenting in training.

10. “Run Simple” ends with a chapter of questions that readers might have, along with your answers. What additional Q&A would you now add, based on reactions to the book?

I would probably spend some more time clarifying why I have so many sample workouts in a book that supposedly espouses simplicity. I can see why some readers would be confused by that and I believe I need to add some more clarification about the purpose of these workouts.

* * * * * *

Related:
review of “Run Simple” (iRunFar.com)
The Most Dangerous Man in Running, and The Book He Wrote (RunBlogRun.com)

5 comments

  1. Good interview.

    Dad


  2. Do people really need St. Duncan giving dispensation and reassuring them there is “nothing wrong with getting a nice headlamp”?


    • I think Duncan would be the first to acknowledge that people are free to ignore anything he says. Here I specifically asked for his opinion, so he can’t be faulted for providing it.


    • Hi Stephen: Hope all is well with your running. It seems like a million years ago when we ran that 25K together in Philly. Anyway, I definitely don’t want to make myself out to be some kind of saint and agree that no one likes to be preached at. Please ignore as much if not everything I’m saying about my thoughts on running simple. You’re a great runner and I doubt you need to listen to me of all people. However, I do hope some of Greg’s readers take the opportunity to at least ponder how they can alter their running by reading this interview. Thanks to Greg for facilitating it.


      • Hey Duncan. I’ve gotten in the bad habit of writing little Twitter/Facebook type comments and lose my manners. Let me back up and say congrats on the book. I saw it a few weeks back on the shelf at a local B&N, so it must be doing alright.

        Your response was very helpful for getting a sense of where you’re coming from. You set an ascetic tone with the running simple approach, even so far as to channel the Kenyan highlands, and then take a much more accepting stance when various aspects of our Western life interfere with this. But at what point does running simple become one more impossible bar to measure up to?



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