Friday, August 25, 2017
I am delighted that Dr. Jeff Edmonds has agreed to be interviewed for this blog. Jeff and I graduated from the same high school in Chattanooga, TN, a few years apart. We both ran track, though Jeff ran a good bit faster than I ever did, and Jeff continued his running career at Rice University and Williams College. Jeff earned a PHD in philosophy at Vanderbilt University and is currently the high school academic dean at the prestigious University School of Nashville. Jeff coaches a running group called the Nashville Harriers, and he recently revived his excellent philosophy and running blog, The Logic of Long Distance.
The interview follows under the break. In the interview, Jeff shares wisdom on running and education that are well worth your time.
HM: Would you give our readers an overview of your history with running?
JE: I've been running as long as I can remember, first just as a kid, then as a soccer player. My relationship with running bloomed in high school, as I was part of a great program at The Baylor School in Chattanooga. I learned there as a cross-country runner and track guy almost everything that continues to feed my running: the friendships, a chance to compete, the thrill of moving across open land, and of course the mental and physical benefits of running that we all know about. I continued running in college at Rice University then at Williams College. I dropped the sport for a bit in my early 20s but then picked it up again when I began a PhD program in Philosophy at Vanderbilt. Along the way I coached XC and track in several high school and have worked with individual runners as well. [HM: Jeff is being modest. Post-college, he has run under 16 minutes for the 5K and under 2:40 for the marathon. Read "very fast."]
HM: How, if at all, has running enhanced your academic life?
JE: They have always gone hand in hand. Academic work and running share so many of the same qualities. A commonality is of course the daily discipline and the routine. As academics, we are our best when we can put thinking on top of thinking, writing on top of writing. Our accomplishments come through small but consistent innovation -- it's not the single thought that is genius, but the single thought worked through until it is correct and communicable. Runners know this as well. No one becomes a runner through a single run; it's through the routine that our bodies slowly change and adapt.
On the other hand, runners carry a dirty little secret from the rest of the world. What looks from the outside like struggle and sacrifice and pain is actually enjoyable. Runners are aficionados of bodily feeling, and our daily dose of the running feeling is our secret delight. While the academy in its current form is certainly full of all sorts of stresses and problems, I think the best of us also take pleasure in thinking and discovery. We enjoy the work; it has value in itself. I suppose that for me that's been a touchstone in my whole life, in work, in relationships, and in running, trusting that joyful work is the best work. That equation has probably been most straightforward in running for me.
HM: What do you most enjoy about running?
JE: My old high school XC coach said that when I looked back on it all, what I would appreciate most from running would be the friendships. At the time I was 17 and so focused on running faster and improving. I didn't get it. But now I see that's so true. So many of my best friends have been forged out on the roads. Running gives us time, space, and common effort, which are the preconditions of deep friendship.
HM: You have been dealing with an achilles injury for a few years now. Do you have any advice for those hoping to avoid injuries or for those coping with injuries? I know that you have written about how the elliptical was an unsatisfactory substitute for running for you.
JE: Yes, I am coming off of an achilles tendon injury that put me out of the sport for three years. I'm afraid I am not the best counsel for avoiding injury. It's part of the sport and the injury was a consequence of me running upwards of 3000 miles per year for about 6 years straight in graduate school. Asphalt in the end will shred flesh. But being forced to take a break with injury in the end will work out best for me; runners can become obsessive and in my time off I had to rediscover value in life, not in my daily escape. In training, we start to believe that it's the training that does the work, but we have to remember that it's our bodies and mind that do the work. They can only give what they can give, and the best training works to bring that out. In the effort to push ourselves to become better and better we run up against those limits and demand more of ourselves than we can give. That ends up being counter-productive, of course.
HM: You’ve given the running community in Nashville, myself included, a great gift in your thoughtful coaching of the Harriers. In your opinion, what are the characteristics of a good coach? How are these characteristics similar to or different from the characteristics of an effective educator? On your blog, you provided some thoughts on what it means to be a good coach in your moving tribute to our late high school coach Van Townsend.
JE: This is a big question, and an important one for me as an educator. I think the best coaches and educators share two qualities: 1) they see the strengths and weaknesses of others and 2) they are capable of strong belief. These two things are relatively straightforward, but they can actually be quite rare in combination. Athletes are usually pretty neurotic, and the effort and investment their sport demands means they are often poor judges of their own needs. The best coaches are able to communicate truths about what the athlete needs in a way that the athlete can hear it. Also, coaches have to believe in their athletes. We all know that we are our own worst critics. To achieve at a high level, an almost irrational self-belief is necessary. Great coaches see and believe in the best in others and are able to reflect that back to their athletes, so that they see the best in themselves.
HM: What advice do you have for new runners, those starting with no or little experience running?
JE: Running is an internal art. Listen to your body, try to learn yourself. Nowadays there are so many gadgets and distractions to keep you from hearing yourself that many runners miss what's best about running: the chance to develop deep self-relation.
HM: For you, what is the role of goal setting in running and how do you choose your goals?
JE: Goals are like ghosts: they haunt us. My four year old sees monsters everywhere. They frighten her and intrigue her. Setting a goal is not so different from a four year old seeing a monster. We have to create goals in racing that produce the right amount of fear and the right amount of intrigue. The right goal can awaken a monster within.
JE: It's not the whole picture. I could be a satisfied runner without entering an official race. That said, I find myself racing others in workouts, or racing myself on a random Thursday afternoon. The most compelling thing about racing, to me, is that when we race we take a risk. We put ourselves out there. We try (and usually fail) to give a full effort. It's important to ask this of ourselves in all areas of life, but in life there are so many variables, it's always so hard to really tell whether and how we've given that effort. A running race strips everything down to a distance, a pair of shoes, some light clothing. This allows us to make ourselves vulnerable, and perhaps paradoxically find ourselves at our strongest.
HM: Thanks for chatting with us, and I hope to join you for a run soon.