Fall 2016

(Still) running to awareness

Gary Truce's wild idea changes lives

Feature Image
Jonathan Cohen
Gary Truce runs through the Nature Preserve.

In 1974, running was mostly done on a track, in plain sneakers — or in public, naked (remember streakers?). And that was the year Binghamton University coach and faculty member Gary Truce proposed a new class called Running to Awareness.

“We don’t want this to become some kind of circus sideshow,” is how Truce sums up the response of one administrator.

Truce prevailed, and more than 40 years later Running to Awareness and its counterpart, Psychophysiological Awareness, remain popular among students and mentioned by alumni with surprising frequency.

“[Running to Awareness] became the catalyst for a lifetime of running, which, over the decades, has been a means of self-expression and exploration,” Pamela Winikoff ’76, MBA ’85, wrote in an email to Truce in 2014, thanking him for inspiring a lifetime of running. Winikoff, a writer, has run five New York City Marathons. “Running has been like a best friend,” she says.

Turning runners into winners

Truce was a Division I coach at the University of Cincinnati when he was recruited by Binghamton in 1968 to take over its men’s cross country and track programs. Results were swift: The 1969 track team had its best season ever (7-3), and the 1970 cross country team was undefeated. He added women’s track in 1976 and women’s cross country in 1977. And from 1985–88, he helped U.S. track and field and tae kwon do athletes mentally prepare for the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul.

By the time he retired from coaching in 1994, he had coached 14 student-athletes with a combined 25 All-American awards and been named “Coach of the Year” seven times by various organizations. Truce was inducted into Binghamton’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008, joining seven other Hall of Fame members he had coached.

In her nomination letter for Truce’s consideration for the Hall of Fame, Marilyn (Milligan) Caulfield ’84 wrote: “He took a group of young, inexperienced runners and with the power of positive thinking brought us all the way to the Eastern Division III championship at Holy Cross in 1982 and to a fifth-place finish in the National Division III championship in 1983. In that same year, I was able to run a personal best for the marathon and earn All-America status. There is no doubt in my mind that Coach Truce’s influence, his love of running and his ‘I believe in you’ attitude have been a thread throughout my life.”

Connecting mind and body

The concepts of sports psychology and the mind-body connection are today well-researched. But they were relatively new when Truce earned his EdD at West Virginia University in 1974.

“The emphasis of my doctorate was in the area of psychology relating to human behavior and functional capacity, which means the ability to simply do things,” he says. “It allowed me to work in sports psychology, helping people perform above and beyond what they sometimes think they’re capable of doing, or getting them over blocks and inhibitions.”

Truce’s track and cross country runners were proof that his techniques worked. But what about the students — naturally athletic or not — who were not competing?

As an instructor, Truce noticed that physical education classes taught students how to play a sport. He wanted to teach them why to play.

“I discovered when you’re out on a run, there’s an awareness you pick up about different things — the awareness of how nice people can be when they’re holding the pricker bush for you when you’re running through the forest, or how people will hold back and wait for you if you’re a little tired.

“I found this interaction among people, and I saw the meditation aspect to running, the joy and the runner’s high.”

Truce seized on the idea of awareness. By teaching students about the body’s musculature system and the effects of nutrition, stress and relaxation — the mind-body connection — he turned a phys ed requirement into a way of life for some students.

“Had he called the class Calisthenics and Jogging, it would have been the same course. But he might have gotten a lot of jocks instead of a lot of hippies,” says Andrew Horowitz ’89, founder of Second Hand Dance Company and Galumpha. “Gary wanted you to compete with yourself; he just wanted to better the individual athlete. People are always sending me clips of incredibly technical acts of other companies with cheeky notes that say ‘Andy, you should try this.’ But I’ve always had the sense, perhaps instilled in me by Gary, that I’m not trying to compete with the outside world,” Horowitz says.

When Truce asked students what they had become aware of, he says he would get answers such as “even cold days can be fun” or “the river was beautiful when we crossed over it.”

But awareness, like wisdom, matures over time.

“Running has been the one constant that has helped me get through the loss of my brother, my parents, friends and pets,” Winikoff says. “Ultimately, the awareness is that I can break through pain and discomfort, both emotional and physical, and forge on, bolstered by the knowledge that I will triumph and get there because I’ve done it so many times before.”

Run, bike, dance

At age 73, Truce has smooth skin, an earnest way of speaking and “pretty good” knees.  He still runs, but cycling and folk dancing help him avoid overuse injuries, in addition to promoting coordination, balance and memory. (“I know 300 to 400 dances,” he says.)

“I became a runner as a seventh-grader and found, before long, that I was beating most of the seniors on my team. I started to catch fire on the inside like there was nothing that could hold me back. There was such an enthusiasm about running at the time.

“Surprisingly that’s what I found when I got into these dance groups. There’s that same fun and enthusiasm. Swing, Irish and folk dancing have given me that same joy and same fire inside, like there’s no end to how good I can actually get.”
He’s thinking about retiring, but not slowing down.

Another kind of awareness

Truce’s own experiences with awareness have gone beyond the mind-body connection — way beyond.

A student and teacher of parapsychology, he wrote about one of his experiences in his 2016 book, Shelly and Rhoda: A Most Extraordinary Spirit Encounter (CreateSpace).

In it, he recounts meeting a Binghamton-area family whose youngest daughter, 11-year-old “Shelly,” was befriended and protected by a girl her own age called “Rhoda.” Rhoda said she was a spirit in limbo who, Truce writes, could levitate Shelly, the family dog and household objects. She communicated with the family — and with Truce — mostly by computer but sometimes by writing messages on furniture, mirrors and paper.

Truce worked with the family, whose names he changed in the book and who never sought publicity, for 15 years before Rhoda went away. The book is a retelling of many of the incidents and conversations recorded by Truce.

“The book is, in our way of thinking, impossible. But I saw and experienced all of this stuff. People who don’t know me question my sanity,” he says. “I’m not a psychic. Call it sensitivity or intuition, but I pick up cues about people very easily.”

“I do believe it happened,” says Mitchell Milch ’76, who stays in touch with Truce. “I have no way of understanding it, but I don’t doubt one element of it.”

Returning to what was learned

Milch, a psychoanalyst who’s writing a book he’s calling Do I Need My Head Examined or Do I Need a New Pair of Running Shoes?, says Truce helped him shed anxieties and doubt and become the athlete he wanted to be.

Milch says he’s repeatedly returned to the lessons he learned in Running to Awareness.

“Running is a metaphor for my life; it’s been a marathon. But I learned a lot under Gary’s tutelage about resilience and about discipline. At almost 62, I’m in better shape than I was at 40.

“To be excellent in the moment you really have to train and have the mindset of an elite athlete. Approaching life in that manner pays incredible dividends in terms of developing your potential. That’s what hanging around Gary Truce was all about.”