For millions of people all over the world, running is such a natural, enjoyable and even somewhat addictive form of exercise that it can be jarring to encounter photos that remind us just how weird it is. After all, if walking is a form of “controlled falling,” as one well-known description has it, then running can perhaps be characterized as an endless series of narrowly averted catastrophes. Bipedal hominids strolling casually around their environment is evolution in action; hominids jogging for miles at a time, or sprinting at breath-taking speeds for hundreds of yards, is something else entirely.
People run for any number of reasons. They run for their health. They run because they want to push their own physical limits. They run because they’re neurotic. They run because working out at a gym is too confining, too smelly, too boring. They run because it makes them happy (or because it makes them forget, for a while, that they’re sad). They run because their friends run, and the sense of camaraderie one gets when running with a group of kindred spirits is one of life’s simple, abiding pleasures. They run to cheat death.
Whatever the reasons, on National Running Day LIFE.com offers photos by a pioneer of stroboscopic photography, Gjon Mili, that neatly illustrate the melding of grace and power one applauds — but rarely ever really examines — in the very best runners. Granted, most of these pictures are of speed rather than distance runners, but the elemental beauty, the smooth flowing movement of the enterprise pertains to virtually all types of running.
(There are, however, differences in the temperaments of different types of runners. For exmaple, as Ian Holm’s character, the trainer Sam Mussabini, points out in Chariots of Fire, sprinting is a sport “tailor-made for neurotics.”)