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Nature, Play, Running, and the Rebirth of Fartlek

By Staff | Mar 23, 2012

Last week I had the privilege of addressing an audience of local youth in a TEDx event. The topic was “Connection to Nature”. TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) was created with the mission of sharing “ideas worth spreading”. TED talks are given all over the world on meaningful topics. Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech of 2005 was just posted on their site and has over six million views.

Thanks to the Rotary clubs of Shepherdstown and Martinsburg and host NCTC, we were able to dialogue with youth from regional high schools. The rules are strict- you have 18 minutes maximum.

As a child I loved to run and play and was always outdoors. I did not think of “nature” in any modern terms of trees, conservation, saving species. I just liked to play. This love of running as play never disappeared. In over 40 years of running I have never run on a treadmill. I am 45 now and count my running life having started at about age 2 from what my parents tell me.

I have run in urban streets, frozen tundra, up mountains, down canyons, in beautiful parks and trails, and around the same familiar loops in endless laps. All gave equal pleasure. Why the treadmill void? I think the dots were now connecting.

I queried the youth “what is nature”? What did their “backyard” or “playground” look like? I posed the question and each reflected, hopefully with a calming thought.

I went on to define “play” as Dr. Stuart Brown does: “Play is purposeless and all consuming. And most important its fun.”

Play is disconnected from outcomes. You are in the moment. In a scientific data driven world, play resists all efforts to analyze it. So my hypothesis became: maybe nature(by definition) where play occurs?

So how do we reconnect people to nature? Perhaps we must embrace the essence of play is being engineered out of our lives. Every activity now has a score, a checklist goal, an end-game. When we find ourselves in a beautiful place we are compelled to photograph it or send a tweet.

We have “physical education”. Luckily my children have the goddess of play Valarie Dudash as their mentor. They rock climb, do archery, running games, and any variety of fun movement activities which often have no score.

As we get older we get less playful and lose the purposeless nature of true play, which I think is similar to a nature experience. must find their own space and time for play, and only then will one truly embrace nature.

So what does this have to do with running? The Running Philosopher of the 70’s Dr. George Sheehan said “Play is the process. Fitness is the product.” He also said “There is no better test for play than the desire to be doing it when you die”.

Dr. Sheehan was a cardiologist. He was confused at the literature where there was not a clear correlation between regimented exercise and reduced cardiac deaths, but the reduced risk from leisure physical activity was large. What was going on? Maybe play?

I started my life as a kid running as play and entered races in this state of mind. Dr. Benjamin Spock said “A child loves his play, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard.” Myself and the runners in the 1970’s and early 80’s loved races as a place for exuberance. There was never anyone on the sideline or a personal trainer yelling “make it hurt” or “press harder”.

As I became a competitive runner in college, the activity was shaping into daily regiment. Always a workout, a goal, and an outcome attached. We became fit at the expense of our health- injuries, fatigue, and loss of exuberance.

Only after injury which had physicians questioning my logic to continue running did I return to the roots of running as play. In the 1930’s a Swedish coach created fartlek(no not that) defined as speed play. Run with the exuberance of a child, sprint up hills, jump over things, relax, be in the moment. The conditions in Sweden were not conducive to the standard ovals so they had to improvise and the system-less system created Olympic champions who loved to run.

The great coaches of history embraced fartlek: from Percy Cerutty of Australia who had his Olympic champions running up sand dunes in the 50’s to Arthur Lydiard of New Zealand, coach of 20 Olympic medalists. Lydiard importantly created the New Zealand fartlek. He was the first to prescribe activity for heart patients and knew it needed to be easy but fun, thus he embraced easy running as New Zealand fartlek.

So for the past 12 years every run has been some form of a fartlek: never a struggle, never hard, never an outcome, sometimes really easy, and occasionally sprinting like a child. This activity makes me more creative, energetic, and happy. Like play, it is as important as sleeping and eating.

If one desires data on the outcomes of active play, the science is irrefutable. Playing makes you healthier, happier, smarter, and more innovative. Dr. Stuart Brown wrote a book on play and founded the National Institute of Play (www.nifplay.org) to study what resists study. Research is showing that kids who participate in unstructured running activity (play) get higher grades. Adults do better at work. People age with health and longevity.

So the TED talk covered running as play through the ages. We showed our local videos of youth running clubs, barefoot kids, community runs, and finally 80 year old Don Taylor running the Freedom’s Run marathon. Each individual was finding their own monkey bars in their playground. To me this is nature.

I believe Frank Forencich when he states: “Play as if Your Life Depends on It”. showed a short clip of barefoot running in Antietam. This is my monkey bars and place of play. A fun new challenge against the conventional wisdom that out feet need to be protected from the earth.

is the opposite of play? Some may say work, but I would say depression. So I challenged the youth. How are you going to make nature and play part of your life? Can you become a local change agent? Resist exchanging play for work in a world where the margins are getting thinner and play with the abandon and joy of childhood.

So why never the treadmill? Simple. It is not play.