Monday, November 21, 2011

Heart Runners and Head Runners

I had the pleasure of interviewing Eric Clifton for my upcoming story about Mike Morton, set to appear in the March 2012 issue of Ultrarunning magazine. Yes, the same Eric Clifton whose 17-year-old record at the JFK 50-Mile went down over the weekend when David Riddle, 30, of Cincinnati, Ohio ran an amazing 5:40 at the 49-year-old race. Eric, in reflecting on how he and Morton used to train together, said something that really got me to thinking. He said that at the pace they often ran together, a runner either breaks down or breaks through.

Eric also described himself as a "heart runner." Here's how Eric characterizes "heart runners" and "head runners":
"To me, a heart runner runs races for the joy of pushing their limits. Winning is not so important, except for the effort it takes to win raises one to a higher level of speed and performance. Times also are not that relevant. What's important is the run. To run freely, smoothly and strongly: that's what it is all about. They do not go out and calculate a predetermined pace to net them a certain time or performance; they just run their hearts out every race. Heart runners are not consistent with their races, no matter how talented they are, simply because they do not worry about saving energy for later. They are going for broke every race and, if the bodies hold up, they have awesome runs. If they tip over into the red zone for long enough, they have spectacular failures. I think both outcomes are great. Head runners are nice guys (and gals) but I truly love and respect heart runners."
In his prime, Eric was well-known for going out hard and staying at a blistering pace. That's what got him all those course records and wins, including his amazing 5:46 course record at the JFK 50-Mile--a record that stood for 17 years. (Eric is perhaps best known for his prominent role in "Running on the Sun," a fascinating documentary about the 1999 Badwater Ultramarathon, which he won. Click here to watch the entire documentary.) But it's also what led to a number of DNF's. From what I've learned and been told, in a race Eric Clifton either did something amazing, or he crashed and burned. There was never a middle ground with him. I admire that.

I think there's a connection between being a heart runner and reaching that point where you either break down or finally break through. This raises a whole bunch of questions. Is it worth it to throw 100 percent of yourself into your runs--every ounce of your heart and soul--even if it means breaking down and/or not reaching the finish line? Yeah, the risk of failure or injury is there, but there's also a huge potential payoff. Of course, you have to put in the necessary training, or else your hopes will be dashed almost every time. But what if we all trained with 100 percent of our heart, never going through the motions, and always went out guns blazing in races? What if we all risked spectacular failure in a quest for the ultimate race? Do we train like zombies and race "carefully" because we are afraid of failure? And is going out hard, only to crash and burn, really failure?

I think to be a heart runner and to run with guns blazing, you have to train hard and believe in yourself. When the gun goes off and you explode out of the gate, running those early miles with the field behind you, you have to believe in your heart that you will succeed--through the good moments and those awful dark moments. If you don't believe, or if you have ever faint doubts, you will fail, or change your approach to a "safer" strategy. But is "safe" really fulfilling?
Are you a heart runner, or a head runner?


  1. Just thought I would stop by your blog - great writing! Very thought provoking.
    I always saw myself as a heart runner, but I guess I really am a head runner! ha!

  2. Love this post. For a long time I didn't consider a workout a workout unless my heart rate maxed the last couple miles and my pace dropped. I am trying to embrace aerobic training these days but a very thought provoking post. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Eric Grossman wrote about the "Central Governor" model recently on his blog...about raising the perceived threshold. Do you go out slow and savor the slow build, and or go out fast and raise that threshold? I think ultimately it's hard to improve unless you become a "heart runner" once in awhile; otherwise your mind wants to maintain the comfort zone. It's funny, some of my best runs have been with canine training partners...they go out super fast, and I just try to hold on to their leashes the best I can. A mile later, the dogs are completely trashed, but I am in a new zone. Painful getting there, but it's a great feeling once you arrive!

  4. I've done some of both. Examples:

    2008 Mohican 100--went hard from the start and was in the lead at mile 60 and on pace for a 16-hour finish. Then my knee blew up and I barely finished 4th.

    2009 Mohican 100--came back smarter and went conservatively for the first ~60 miles, letting the guys in front of me wilt in the heat, which they did. Then I started thinking about the win after 60. Then at mile 80 I made my move and ran every step of the last 20 miles at a decent clip, passing them all for the win. Head the first 80 miles, heart the last 20.

    2008 Cleveland Marathon--ran the first 20 miles with my head, watching my splits carefully, and then ran with my heart the last 10K for a 2:58. I came down the home stretch in bad shape, but still moving at about 6:45 pace.

    2011 Leadville 100--ran with my heart for the first 50 miles and then paid for it in the last half, though I finished 29th overall.

  5. What an amazing, and thought provoking way to look at it. Really, for many people just attempting an ultra is a risk-taking adventure. To answer those questions, I think you must factor in talent, training, personality, and experience. And really, each individual has a different definition of failure (and success). But, I will say, that most of the "head runners" I know, wish they had at least a little more "heart runner" in them, including me. Great post.

  6. What a great insight! I'd really love to read more about the transition from Head Runner to Heart Runner. I am most definitely a Head Runner and it always frustrates me to finish with gas left in the tank. Wish I could become a Heart Runner. Great post.