Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Exceeding Expectations


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

August 2001. Here are tales of two runners who show that a practice I’m about to propose isn’t as weird as it might seem. Neither runner is an underachiever, athletically or professionally. Christine Clark is a pathologist in Alaska, Jeff Hagen a dentist in Washington state.

Many American marathoners aimed higher in 2000 than Dr. Clark. None achieved more internationally.

When first spotted during U.S. television coverage from the Sydney Olympics, she lagged near the back. She might have appeared overwhelmed to be in this company.

But no, Clark calmly climbed into the top 20. Set a PR too, on a windy day and hilly course that worked against such times.

She was as surprised as anyone that she even reached Sydney. Winning the U.S. Trials didn’t figure into her prerace plans. She didn’t aim low, but realistically said she hoped to break into the top 20.

Before the race she had told an Anchorage reporter, “If you train really hard, you’re going to have a good day. And sometimes, for no reason you can account for, you have a great day.”

You can’t will such days to happen. You do the training, then take your chances on what kind of race day it will be.

Jeff Hagen takes a similar view on goals, though he too is no slacker. Few ultrarunners have won more often while aiming lower. In his 50s he does especially well in track races that last a day or more.

“I have always steered clear of setting lofty race goals,” he wrote in his club newsletter. “With them comes pressure, and if any little thing goes wrong – which is almost a certainty in any ultra event – I can easily become demoralized and perform poorly. By setting goals that are more achievable, if things happen to be going well, I sometimes adjust my goal upward during the second half of the event.”

Like many runners, I’ve never lacked motivation but am more likely to trip over the high hurdles of ambition. I caved in to the pressure of such goals from the start – two starts, in fact.

Here are tales of two miles. Race one was my first high school mile, where I aimed to beat the big boys. The only one beaten up by a too-fast start and quitting the race after little more than a lap was me.

Race two was my first college mile. I set as a goal breaking 4:20, though I’d never gone that fast and this event followed a season of slow training. The time fell short by a dozen seconds and left me despondent.

My best times nearly always have come as surprises, not as a result of hitting lofty targets. “Goals are stopping places,” I once wrote. You either reach them and stop because you’re satisfied, or you don’t reach them and stop out of frustration.

By setting high goals, you set yourself up for high pressure and a high probability of failure. Lower goals lead to lower pressure and surprising results.

Case in point: Boston 1967 was my marathon debut, and the longest training run had been 20 miles at eight-minute pace. A reasonable goal seemed to be holding that same pace for the extra 10K.

I started as planned but steadily nudged up the pace. To my shocked delight I averaged 6:30 miles in that marathon. The new goal became that pace or better, which I never averaged again.

If high goals become hurdles that trip you up, try this: Set “at-least” goals that are the least you will accept instead of the most you might achieve – goals that are floors to spring from instead of ceilings to bump into.

Divide the race into two parts, equal in size but very different in style. Run the first half like a scientist, with planning and restraint. Then switch in the second half to running like an artist, creatively and emotionally.

Starting cautiously will often lead to finishing with a rush. Running the second half of a race faster than the first is misleadingly called “negative splits.” In fact, few feelings in running are more positive than a strong finish with an outcome that far exceeds expectations.

2019 Update. My “at least” goal now is to enter at least one race a year, there to go faster (or less slow) than I’d do the same distance alone. I still can trust the race-day magic to shave at least one minute per mile.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]



Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Aging Agendas


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

August 1999 (retitled in the magazine). Nothing illustrates the rush of years more than a long-delayed visit to an old hometown. Seeing friends again after all this time puts a face on our aging.

For about a decade in the 1960s and 1970s I lived on the outskirts of the Stanford University campus in northern California. Two of my children were born here, and so was my career. I worked first for Track & Field News in Los Altos, then for Runner’s World in Mountain View.

These might also have been my best years as a racer, and not by chance. Races abounded in the Bay Area at a time when they still were scarce most other places.

Runners were abundant too. Here’s where I really got to know the friendliness of the long-distance runner. Groups of us took long runs together on Saturdays, then met again the next morning in friendly competition.

About 20 years ago I left this area and these friends. Since then I’d seen too little of this place and these people. Many of us had completely fallen out of touch.

In March I went back for the first time in eight years. The Fifty-Plus Fitness Association invited me back to speak at its race.

Fifty-Plus promotes active aging. Its events at Stanford included a day of workshops, an awards banquet and an 8K run. I can’t recall spending many better weekends as the gap between past and present closed here.

The surface changes in some old friends were startling, as I’m sure mine were to them. But we quickly looked past this as we rediscovered the same person we’d known before.

Inevitably some stories were sad. My longest-time friend in this area now cared for his wife with advanced Alzheimer’s... a former ultrarunner now wore a pacemaker and defibrillator in his chest... an 87-year-old lay critically ill in Stanford Hospital.

But good news and positive views far outweighed the bad. This started with my closest friend here this weekend.

I’ve edited three books for Paul Reese, but we hadn’t seen each other in six years. He said in his talk that a key to aging well is “always have an agenda.” His is to write a fourth book at age 82.

Jim O’Neil and Ruth Anderson are longtime friends of mine. Jim is into his 70s, and Ruth soon will be. Both have on their agendas trips to England, where they’ll extend streaks of competing in every World Veterans Championships.

The most gratifying meeting was with Bob Anderson. We hadn’t seen each other, or even connected by phone or mail, since he sold Runner’s World magazine in 1985.

I’d heard that Bob still raced well, and now saw him finish fifth in the Fifty-Plus 8K. He runs better times now, at 51, than he did when we worked together at his magazine.

“Working in the sport worked against my own running,” he said. “I didn’t have enough time to train or, frankly, all that much interest in doing it. Now I’m free to do what I couldn’t do back then.”

Bob stated his agenda numerically. He still wants to break 17 minutes for 5K and 35 for 10K (after running 17:18 and 35:50 in March).

He and many others I saw at Fifty-Plus illustrate the best way of aging. That’s to keep looking forward, not gazing increasingly backward.

2018 Update. One of the two main characters in this book, Paul Reese, has passed on – in 2004 at age 87. He left behind three books about his runs across every U.S. state. Bob Anderson continues racing strongly in his 70s. He promotes and publicizes running in several innovative ways.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]







Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Little Irritants


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

August 1997 (retitled in the magazine). I have to laugh that the Los Angeles Times asked me, of all people, to critique the movie “Prefontaine.” I’m no critic. I prefer to look for the good instead of reporting the bad.

But I took on the L.A. Times assignment and had the article bounce back to me twice for rewrites because it wasn’t tough enough. A few runner-readers criticized me for being too tough on the movie. One reader said, “This isn’t like you.”

No, it’s not. I don’t go out of my way to run down the sport and its practitioners, and more often err in the opposite direction by singing their praises too loudly. I write columns that leave you thinking I must like everyone who runs and everything about running.

Not quite. In the interests of realism and balance, I give you the following list of little irritants in the life of this runner. But the Pollyanna in me can’t help adding that enduring these few negatives adds to the appreciation of the many positives. What I don’t like about running:

The first mile of most runs, before you find a rhythm... Running in darkness when each foot plant is an act of faith... Times unreadable in the dark without holding the watch six inches from your face... Looking down in midrun and seeing the watch still reading “0:00”... Looking down after a time trial to find the watch still running... People who ask for the time of day when you’re in the stopwatch mode.

Ending a run early and walking back to the start, even when injury-control demands it... Courses that start downhill and beat up a cold body... Courses that finish uphill and beat down an already tired body... Courses that pass the eventual finish line before you’re finished.

Waiting for stoplights to change... Waiting for traffic to pass before you cross a street... Jumping on and off curbs... Oncoming drivers who won’t dim their lights for a mere pedestrian... Drivers who don’t signal their turns for you, coast through stop signs, won’t yield an inch of their lane on an otherwise empty road, or drive in the bike lane... Bikers startling you as they silently pass from behind... Unseen dogs that first bark when you’re three feet away.

A pebble in the shoe that feels like a boulder... A rock stuck in the shoe tread and scraping along the road... Stepping on gum or dog poop on the sidewalk... Stinky shoes from running without socks... Slipping into clammy shoes that haven’t dried out from the last run or the last wash... Shoes that disappear from the market as soon as they become favorites.

Running in long pants that seem to restrict leg motion even if they don’t... Cold hands and ears that make you feel cold all over... Finishing into a headwind... Sudden rain showers that catch you underdressed... Invisible patches of ice on the streets that lurk to tackle you.

Being seen walking, even if you believe in the value of walking breaks... Getting caught making a pit stop, even when you tried to be discreet... Spit and snot that end up on your chin, cheek or chest... Sloshing of food or water in the belly... Swallowing a bug or catching one in the eye.

Walkers who hog the inside lane of the track while you’re running there for time... The looks of business-suited travelers when you walk into a hotel elevator in few clothes and a full sweat... Greeting another runner and not getting so much as eye contact in return... Tailgating by runners who attach themselves to your pace when you want to run alone... Watching healthy runners race when you’re unwell and can’t run.

2018 Update. Twenty-one years later I'd change few of these words. But I could (and sometimes did) go column length on many of these topics. 


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]



Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Long May You Run


(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

July 2003 (retitled in the magazine). Let’s say that a marathon looms on your distant horizon, a full training program away. Let’s say also that you accept the long run as the centerpiece of this program, trusting it to take you where you want to go.

But you’re still asking: “How long? How fast? How often?” Here are some answers, prefaced by a story on how they originated.

Before my first marathon the long runs peaked at 20 miles. I ran this far several weeks before the marathon, intending another run to be even longer but missing it.

The marathon took a few minutes longer to finish than the longest training run. But it packed almost another 10K into that time because its pace was 1½ minutes per mile quicker.

Later I took shorter long runs and longer ones, ran them slower and faster, ran them more and less often. Never again in almost four-dozen tries did I run a faster marathon than the first one. This experience shapes my answers to questions about the long run.

How long? First, draw your start and finish lines for training. In the beginning, don’t let your ambition outpace your ability. Run no more than two miles beyond your recent longest run.

Wherever you start, aim to reach 20 miles in this program. You’ve heard this figure before because it works. Going 20 builds confidence along with fitness. By running this far, you rehearse most of what a marathon has to offer.

Twenty miles is only about three-fourths of a marathon. Where, you might wonder if you aren’t already a marathoner, will the extra 10K come from if you haven’t trained that far?

It comes from the magic of race day. That day brings soul-stirring conditions that you can’t duplicate on solo and small-group training runs. The excitement carries you many extra miles, but not an unlimited number. If you train yourself to 20 miles, race day will take you the rest of the way.

How fast? The training run is not a race. Treat it like one, and you may recover too slowly from one long run to the next. Full recovery from “races” of 10 to 20 miles takes most runners several weeks, and you don’t have that long to wait between these training runs.

So instead of pushing the pace, focus on upping your distance. Back well off from the fastest you could run. Train one to two minutes per mile slower than you could race this same distance – or maybe that much slower than you might race the marathon.

You could surprise yourself by running a minute or more per mile faster on marathon day than you’d trained, even at the longer distance. Again credit the race-day magic.

While you’re at it, credit your training. If you backed well away from race pace, you covered much less than full marathon distance but ran almost the full amount of time that the race would take. You were ready to spend this much time on your feet again, but moving them faster.

How often? If the question means how often to run a particular distance, the answer is once. Runners like having a sense of progression, so make a steady march up in long-run distances without repeating any of them.

The steps themselves are small. They progress from shortest to longest by two miles at a time. With these runs requiring ever-bigger efforts, and therefore ever-longer recoveries, they’re best not taken weekly but only every second or third weekend.

Set the program’s length by where you start. An eight-mile beginning leads to a three- to four-month program. A half-marathon start can shrink the program to as little as two months.

The longest run before the marathon is the last and hardest one. Place it at least three weeks before the race; a full month is better.

What to do between long runs? Recover from the last one and recharge for the next one with mostly easy running.

When one part of the training program (the long run) goes way up in effort, another (the remaining days) must come down in compensation. Shorter runs help make the longer ones work.

2019 Update. I wrote this piece two years before starting to coach a marathon team. The peak training distance for them was 21 miles. They taught me that the best predictor of marathon time was their 21-mile training pace, which they could expect to carry on for the extra five miles on race day.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]