Contrast is the essence of happiness. There is nothing that makes one as happy as drinking a cold beer on a hot day or sleeping in a warm bed on a cold night. Herman Melville wrote in Moby Dick: “To enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable anymore. For this reason, a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.”

I actually read the above quote when spending two months living in a small nipper hut on Nias Island Sumatra Indonesia in the mid-80s. It was one of the most “boring” places I’d ever lived. There was hardly anything to entertain us, except surfing. So every day we surfed, eating only fish and rice. When there wasn’t any surf, which was most of the time, I read Moby Dick, the only book I had, and played cards with the few other bored surfers there. Paradise is not all it is cracked up to be.

It was only when I left that place for the lights and delights of Singapore did I really get the truth of Melville’s words. After taking a hot shower, the first one in 8 weeks, and sleeping on crisp clean sheets of my air-conditioned hotel I headed into the city. It was an assault on the senses, a surreal experience like I had never had before. I was changed forever with the simple but profound knowledge that excitement is only exciting in contrast to boredom, the more extreme the contrasts the better.

A good life can only be realized in contrast. Let me explain how this also works for a good running life and how working “contrast” into our schedules is the only way to get the most out of the process.

All people, after slogging slowly through the first few years as a runner get better. Many mistakenly believe that they got faster simply because they started to run faster and to get faster again it requires them to run even faster. Sort of makes sense, right? But it’s wrong. In the first instance, their new found pace comes as a natural corollary of getting fit and losing some weight. The rest of the story is simply that they have built their bodies to be able to withstand the added pounding that it has to take in order to remain running and that extra running/training manifests itself in a faster runner. After this early success, we get it into our heads that to continue to get better we just have to run faster in training and that’s what we do until the extra effort in all our workout and races overwhelms our ability to recover and we slow down often losing our mojos and never reaching our full potential. This is where contrast can save us.

To get faster, as fast as we are ever going to get we need to run a range of workouts and paces. Pete Magill (USA Master’s Hall of Famer) writes: “let’s dispel a running myth: Running your distance slow won’t make you a slow runner. Training incorrectly (i.e., not doing the full range of workouts required to build speed) will make you a slow runner.” 

The law of contrast in running demands that “full range”, that we run our hard days hard, and our slow days slow. An often related story elite runners tell when returning from visiting Kenya and training with, inarguably, the best runners in the world is just how slow they run the days when they are not doing focused faster sessions.  I’ve personally heard some good non-Kenyan runners say that they were almost tripping over themselves trying to keep such a slow pace.

Contrast is what makes everything better it is a principal that is easily understood in our regular life and one we ignore at the expense of our health, progress, and speed in our running life.


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Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, by Herman Melville. PUBLISHED: London: Constable & Co., 1922.

25 Keys to Running a Faster 5K. Pete Magill. Kindle Edition 2016