Legendary Advice

“Stay in shape” and do “plenty of footwork.” Those were the last two tips that Muhammad Ali gave to his grandson Nico. Tremendous advice, both. Recently, I took Bummer, my 14-year-old yellow Lab retired running companion, to the vet. He suffers from arthritis in his hind legs and has difficulty getting up. I asked whether walks are advisable or whether they’d do more harm than good.

bummer bandana

Bummer doing his cross-country thing

“If he wants to go, take him! His muscles are what is keeping him going. If he stops moving, then he will decline much faster.” Of course, it is true. Bummer and I have run thousands of miles together and his muscles are able to continue doing their job, even when ligaments and bones have worn down. His spirit is resolute as always, and he has developed quick feet – double timing it up front to keep time with his back end. He retains his grace and the amazing ability to pivot and invariably miss, by the slightest of margins, any wall, table or other impediment.

If you do something thousands upon thousands of times, it becomes second nature. Muscle memory, a conditioned set of lungs, and a good attitude enable us to achieve far more than we previously imagined possible. What was once a dream becomes routine and we know what we can do. I run 3 hours, slow, cross country-style in the wilderness every Saturday and Sunday, usually with several thousand feet of elevation gain and loss between 7,000’ and 12,500’ elevation.

'81 San Francisco Half

A 2:30:43 finish for Joseph Karnes, 16 years old, at the 1981 San Francisco Marathon

During the 20 or so years of my competitive career, I refrained from allowing myself to get out of shape. I was lucky to suffer relatively few injuries, but those recoveries embedded in me a refusal to allow myself to lose my fitness. I would laugh and say “its too hard to get in shape. If I had to do it again, I very well might not make it!”

Of course, the time finally came when I let myself go and stopped competing. That transition was a few years in coming and it took me a few more to come to grips with it. My fundamental identity evaporated in proportion to the expansion of my “stylish pot.” It has only been since moving to New Mexico a decade ago that I’ve regained my rhythm. Now, at 50, 6 hours of running in a weekend is typical and thanks to my Sunday runs with Abraham Kosgei, I am even getting my wheels back. But that is not my point. Now I pursue the spirit of adventure and play in the mountains like I did as a child.

Getting fit is hard. Staying fit is not nearly as difficult on the body, mind or spirit. The Champ said “Stay in shape”. Getting in shape is on you. Not even the Greatest can get you in shape – you have to do that yourself. But once you get in shape, apart from setbacks, the right attitude and a not-nearly-as-challenging degree of effort will keep you there.

Miles in the bank. With my standard solid base and some kind of recent speedwork, even if I wasn’t in top condition, I was confident I could at least “fake it” through any competitive race up to a half marathon. You don’t fake a marathon, running for time or to finish. Apart from that, thousands and thousands of miles in the bank will get you through. You know that you can make it. In those days, the question was how fast? Now, it is how much time do I have today? And how much wilderness am I prepared to bite off?

“Stay in shape” and do “plenty of footwork.” What better advice could a grandfather give to his grandson? And what a wonderful thing for that grandson to share it with the world. Muhammad’s daughter said that his heart kept beating for a half an hour after the rest of his body shut down. Ali is the G.O.A.T. because he followed his own advice.

Smooth Running,