Runners' Soul

North Central’s running guru Jon Knight shares the secrets to his success

As Luke laces em up again, hes thinking of the words of Jon Knight: "Running... should be liberating to your soul."
As Luke laces em up again, hes thinking of the words of Jon Knight: "Running... should be liberating to your soul."

“I think people underrate walking if you’re out of shape.” That’s Jon Knight — men’s cross-country coach at North Central High School, winners of four consecutive state championships and, in 2008, the national crown. Among the nuggets of wisdom I expected from Knight, “walking is good” wasn’t one of them. It was a comforting affirmation given my continuing back problems (much better than they were, thank you, but still not allowing me to run), but … strange.

In preparing to speak with Knight, I thought back to the cross-country meets I’d seen in high school. Districts at Qualchan, for example, where 100 or so kids lined up and strategically pummeled the hell out of each other for position over the hilly scramble of a 5K course. I expected Knight to be somewhere between a field marshal and a wartime don. Instead, he was a transcendentalist. “Running is a natural, beautiful activity. It should be done in beautiful surroundings — it should be liberating to your soul.”

See what I mean? More Thoreau than Patton, but we’ll get back to that.

I’m not running yet, and I’m getting antsy. But also a little nervous. Despite walking between two and four miles a day to maintain some semblance of fitness, when I take hills I’ve begun to notice the telltale strain of lungs that have lost their ability to draw as deeply as they once did. I get a little wheezy. I have asthma, but haven’t used an inhaler in years. As long as I’m in shape, it’s not a problem. It’s increasingly a problem, which, logically, means …

And I just hate the feeling of being out of shape. Not simply because I can’t do things with the ease I’d like. There’s a psychological component. I used to have serious lung troubles as a kid, and it’s an uncomfortable reminder of all those traumatic schoolyard issues. Like, say, being picked last for basketball despite being a head taller than everyone. Mostly, though, I’m frustrated that it’s going to take me months to get back to a place where I feel good about my lung capacity. And it’ll be harder at the beginning than the end.The first run is going to be rough. I can feel it. I have, at various times, worked my way up from barely being able to run a mile to running seven, nine, 12. It’s a million times harder to hack out a mile-and-a-half when you’re out of shape than 10 miles when you’re even moderately fit.

That’s why I called Knight.

For 17 years, he has presided over an enormously successful program at NC — a small school by Greater Spokane League standards, competing in easily the most storied high school cross-country league in the state, and maybe the nation. Public high school kids graduate every four years (give or take), and public schools don’t really recruit, so I figured there must be some translatable training and tactics that will work to make even the most out-of-shape slacker a little fleeter of foot.

I was partially right. He wasn’t short of good runnerly advice. (See “Jon Knight’s Tips” below.)

Surprisingly, Knight was interested in making sure we’re all running for the right reasons more so than the physical aspects. He seemed to think my phone call was a bad sign — maybe a cry for help.

“I think if you’re having to get yourself all mentally jacked up, you should pick a different activity. Not something that’s a drudgery,” he said. “Find an activity that feeds your soul.”

That hit home hardest. I don’t know if running has ever fed my soul. I’m not sure how to tell. It’s hard for me to separate my soul from my ego. (I know this column is about physical fitness, not my questionable mental health, but they’re interrelated, especially in something as brain-intensive as running.)

So I honestly don’t know if I’ve loved running because it made me feel good about my place in the world or because it made me feel lean, swift and borderline bad-ass.

I’ll have a lot of time to ponder that question in a few weeks when I head out my door and point my running shoes in the direction of some place of great beauty — then start sucking wind a block later, wheezing, wanting to stop.

One thing I will say about sucking wind after a great run: It can feel like spiritual euphoria, giving you a feeling of oneness with all, whether you want it or not. So I guess I’ll add one bullet point of my own to Knight’s list of tips: Fake it ’til you make it.


  • For the severely out of shape: “Start 10 minutes of walking a day, then add one minute a week. Then, after a while, add five minutes of running. Then you add a minute a week.”

  • No matter what: “Don’t go off and run five miles on pavement [right away]. You’ll get hurt, and then stop.”

  • Run on grass or dirt: “You can cover double the miles.”

  • Start slow and stick with it: “Oxygen debt makes wimps out of all of us. People mistake not being in shape for not being tough.

  • Run with a partner: “Recognize that it’s not just about you.”

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About The Author

Luke Baumgarten

Luke Baumgarten is commentary contributor and former culture editor of the Inlander. He is a creative strategist at Seven2 and co-founder of Terrain.