So the fastest, most famous runner I ever met was Secretariat. At the time, in 1988, I wasn’t even a real runner myself. A little soft, and fresh off my freshman fifteen, I was pretty unsure about life, let alone how to be an athlete. But thanks to our shared interest in horses, Dad and I made the trek to Kentucky to see the Derby, and just by chance we got to meet “Big Red” at Claiborne Farms, where he was happily retired. (As you can see, he was none too impressed with me, but I’m thinking Dad’s raincoat over a classic 80’s style acid washed jean jacket wasn’t the high style he was accustomed to.)

But really, it was only later, when I became a serious racer myself, that I developed a deeper appreciation for Big Red. He was fast – no doubt. He won races not by noses or necks but by many, many lengths; he set records at The Belmont Stakes and The Derby that still stand today (ready to clock a 1:36 mile?); and his victories quickly established him as one of the greatest racehorses of all time.

But the magic of Secretariat was bigger than his stat sheet. Like many of our two-legged running heroes, he had an electric personality…and in the end, a few crucial lessons for me:

1. Start slow and pick them off.
Secretariat was the ultimate, come-from-behind closer. He tended to be slow out of the gate, but methodically, confidently, would accelerate until he was barreling across the line in first – with practically no one second. To this day, the move-up-gradually approach is the number one piece of advice I give to new runners (and like most running lessons, I learned this by doing the opposite and paying the price). It only takes a few humiliating blowups to realize it’s more fun to catch than be caught.

2. Rest is a privilege, not a chore.
In horseracing lore, there are two types of horses: the ones that get raced year round, and the ones that get a month or two out to pasture before training again. Turns out it’s the lesser talented, run-‘em-while-you-can horses that go year round. And only the prized elite get to rest. My Dad was kind enough to mention this to me – after I had caught fire with running and was racing my brains out. Over-racing made me realize that those famed horse trainers actually knew a thing or two about the value of stopping to smell (and eat?) the roses.

In the end, I was lucky I met the big guy when I did. He died a year later. Traditionally, owners bury only the head and heart of a great champion. But with Secretariat, they buried the whole horse. Rest in peace Big Red. You ran a helluva race.

Sally Bergesen is a writer and running apparel designer for Oiselle in Seattle, Washington where she resists the temptation to go out to pasture.

February 18, 2011 — sarah

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