Jeff Johnson remarks @ Border Clash Banquet

Season's Greetings: This was forwarded by Dave Frank who now coaches up in Portland. Jeff Johnson came out to speak to the HS runners in the Washington/Oregon Border Clash. (An XC duel between the two states sponsored by Nike.) Jeff is a low-key humble man who resides in New Hampshire. He was Nike's first paid employee, developed the concept of the swoosh, retired in 1985. He came out here to coach the Farm Team (for free) to Nat'l prominence for 6 yrs.


Jeff Johnson

Thank you. Good evening.

It's a real pleasure for me to be with you tonight.

It seems to me that I've spent my entire life surrounded by winners. First, on my own high school and college teams, then later working here at NIKE, and finally in coaching. It is a privilege to be back in the company of winners once again.

I come to you tonight with a question. It's a rhetorical question, so don't raise your hands.

Here's the question: Why do you run?

You've probably been asked that question before. It's not an easy question to answer, is it? If someone has to ask, they'll probably never understand.

A man once came to Mozart and said: Teach me to write a symphony.

Mozart answered: I can't teach you.

The man said: Why not? You were writing symphonies when you were 4 years old.

To which Mozart replied: Yes, but I didn't have to ask how.

To write timeless symphonies requires a genius that running does not demand, lucky for us, but the problem of explanation is much the same:

If you have to ask, you just don't get it. And you probably won't get it.

But you get it, don't you? You would never ask someone: Why do you run? (Except maybe rhetorically.)

Nevertheless, even you who "get it" have a hard time articulating your passion. I think that is because running is a passion of the spirit. And explaining the spirit is never easy. Running is the expressway to self-confidence, self-awareness, self-discipline and self-reliance. From running, you learn the harsh realities of your physical and mental limitations. From running, you gain strategies for extending those limitations, that you might run farther, run faster, and run tougher. You learn that personal responsibility, commitment, sacrifice, determination, and persistence are the only means of improvement. Running, you come to understand, is a profound, far-reaching and never ending contest of the runner with himself, or herself. And you learn that runners only get promoted through self-conquest.

Running asks a question of you, and everyday it's the same question:

Are you going to be a wimp, or are you going to be strong today?

And when you answer that question in the way that you people in this room have answered it, you become a better, stronger, more confident animal, with a capacity for achievement greater than before, and a formula for success that is forever engraved on your brain. (It is no accident! I think, that this place was founded by runners.) The single, most outstanding characteristic of the runner is independence. Through your own will, you present yourselves to the fire; and the fire changes you, permanently and forever.

    Body and spirit
    I surrendered whole
    To harsh instructors - -
    And received a soul.

Rudyard Kipling wrote those lines nearly a century ago. It's unrecorded what Kipling's PR was for 5K, but I suspect that he had one.

Why do you run? Each of you may articulate it differently, but perhaps we can agree that running touches us spiritually, it forms us, and it strengthens us. It makes us who we are, and at some level, it is who we are. But you can be a runner without being a racer.

So here's another question for you: Why do you compete? Why do you race 3.1 miles? That's gotta hurt. Why do you do it?

For most of you, I imagine that you race for the challenge, the danger, the 'rush' of putting yourself in a place where you must do your absolute best. Because the race requires it. To give your best is to honor your fellow competitors, your teammates, your coach, your school, your family, your community, and all the good people who have worked so hard to put on the race. To give your best in a race is a matter of honor, and duty, and you know that going in. You know, also, that the course will challenge you, that your competitors will challenge you, and that you will challenge yourself. You know, too, that there will come a critical moment in the race where you must make the decision to lay it on the line, to take your shot, or to fall back and regroup. And you hope you'll be up to the challenge, but you're never entirely sure, and it's that uncertainty that calls to you, because it is there, at that moment, that moment of decision, that you offer yourself up to be measured: by the clock, by your legs and lungs, by your guts, and by your heart. And if you want to win the race, in that moment of decision, you're going to have to go a little crazy.

You race, then, because races are a big deal. (In fact, speaking from the vantage point of both experience and hindsight, I dare say that at this time in your lives, the race may be the most important thing that you do. A girl on one of my high school teams came up to me on the day of her graduation and said, " I learned more in cross country, than I learned in high school." "I'm glad," I said, "so did I".

Races are a big deal. Races are the culmination of all the forces that have brought you here:

desire, commitment, focus, sacrifice, suffering, self-discipline, hard work, responsibility. You race because you are invested in effort, and you are invested in success. Moreover, you are invested together.

Look around you. Go ahead. Do it. Look around.

Who are those people you see? Do you think they are your opponents? People who oppose your quest for excellence? Well, they aren't. They are not your opponents. They are your fellow competitors. In fact, they are your co-conspirators, for to compete is to enter into a conspiracy. The conspiracy is revealed in the word itself: compete, which comes from two Latin roots, com (CUM) and petere (PET-ER-AH), which mean "to strive together".

Al Oerter, the 4-time Olympic gold medallist in the discus, once said: "I've never competed against anyone in my life. I've always competed with people. To compete against people is a negative thing. To compete with people is a celebration, a celebration of human capability."

And so it is. The worthy competitor is essential to the race, not as an enemy, but as a co-conspirator. The race, you see, is a secret form of cooperation. The race is simply each of you seeking your absolute best with the help of each other.

Steve Prefontaine said: "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift." What gift do you think he was talking about? The gift of your talent, surely. But perhaps also the gift of opportunity, and the gift of youth, perhaps even the gift of life itself.

In any case, you give your best to the race as a matter of honor? You can do no less, because your competitors are giving their best to you. Now, not all races justify all out, total effort. For some races, your have lesser goals - - to score points for your team, to qualify for a more important race later on - - or just to have fun.

I offer that qualifier to my remarks tonight because I know that all of you are coming off a long, hard season. For some of you, tomorrow's Border Clash is not another test but, rather, a fun, end-of-season reward. For others, it may be a tune-up for the Footlocker Regionals still to come. For all of you, your goals for tomorrow's race are a matter between you and your coaches. We understand that. It isn't my intention tonight to try to get you "fired up" for a race where an all out effort may be inconsistent with your goals. The Border Clash is held solely to honor you, the best cross country runners of two states, and in the hope that you will all gain something joyful and positive from the experience of meeting and competing with each other. But the next time you step to the starting line of an important race, the conspiracy of striving together for excellence will be about to unfold! That white line on the ground before you, and that other white line five kilometers away, will define a sacred place, rife with potential, an arena in which excellence and ultimates are the only acceptable, indeed, the only honorable standards - - and an arena into which only a few, special people ever venture. There - - between those white lines, in a race that matters - - you will give your best to each other. And there - - between those white lines, on that sacred plain, you will learn who you are, of what stuff you are made, and what you can endure, which is essential knowledge, for it will inform your whole, entire life.

Billy Joel wrote: "I won't hold back anything; and I'll walk away a fool, or a king."

For my money, if you've done your best, fool or king, there's equal honor in both. Doing your best is much more important than being the best.

A friend came to visit me last weekend, and he looked over my intended remarks for tonight.

"What are your goals for this speech?" He asked me.

I told him: "I want to tell these kids that they have chosen a sport that ennobles them."

"So many runners are thought of as loners or geeks. I want these kinds to recognize themselves as people who are learning to take responsibility for their lives, people who are learning to control their own destinies."

"I want them to know that the lessons they learn as cross country runners will stay with them their whole lives, that as a result of being cross country runners they will gain the habits of winners: setting goals, working hard, doing their best, being patient, persistent and focused."

"I want them to see that making a commitment, laying it on the line, and taking a chance, pays off more often than not."

"I want them to understand that competition is not an anti-social act, but a social one, and that to give their best is part of the social contract."

"I want them to know that whatever else they do in life will always be secondary to having been an athlete. That from being an athlete first - - and especially a long distance runner - - they are already fundamental victors."

"They don't know it yet - - and they certainly don't understand it - - but the sport they have chosen will never leave them. It will lead them down avenues of achievement and success that they cannot yet imagine."

Those are my goals for this speech.

"Then say that," my friend said.

Good idea, I thought. So I just did.

Thank you for listening to me tonight. I have the greatest admiration and respect for cross-country runners, and it's been a genuine honor for me to be with you.

May you all have a safe race tomorrow, and may you all reach your goals.

Thank you.