Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Getting Out More Often


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

June 2001 (retitled in the magazine). Have you run today, or will you run before day’s end? I can say with certainty that Bob Ray will put another day in his logbook, and so will Mark Covert.

They are what’s known in our trade as “streakers.” This isn’t the 1970s fad of running unclad in public but the largely private practice of running day after week after month after year without a miss.

Ray and Covert are America’s champion streakers. Ray, a retired postal worker from Maryland, has run longest without any break, reaching 34 years straight as of April. Covert’s streak is a year shorter than that, but the college coach from California has run more and faster miles – enough to place him seventh in an Olympic Trials Marathon early in his streak.

George Hancock, a streaker himself who keep records on fellow never-miss runners, can name more than 30 Americans who haven’t skipped one day since 1980. As a reformer streaker whose longest run of years ended just short of five, I can’t recommend taking the habit this far.

There are days when resting serves us better than running, but that’s the subject of another month’s column. I still find much to admire in the attitude and approach of runners who can tolerate the everydayness of a streak. They runners show up for work each day, no matter what forces conspire to stop them.

These are the Cal Ripkens of running. Ripken didn’t miss a single baseball game with the Baltimore Orioles for more than 15 seasons.

Admirable as his feat is, Ripken didn’t have to play games year-round or even have them scheduled daily during the season. Streaking runners get no off-season, no rain-outs and no travel days to rest. (But they also have no big-league curveballs to hit, no sellout crowds to please and no seven-figure salary to earn.)

The truest mark of pros in any specialty isn’t how much money they make, if any, but how well they continue to do the job on their less-than-perfect days. Anyone can do well when blessed with good health, high spirits and unpressured time. But only a pro keeps showing up when conditions aren’t ideal, which they usually aren’t and which too often keep the amateurs inactive.

Spring has sprung in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon. Mornings again burst with light and life.

Eugene isn’t just a run capital but also a rain capital. Back in the dark, soggy season as 2000 became 2001, I met few other runner in the course of a seven A.M. run. Now that the rains have tailed off and dawn breaks earlier, I see 10 times more runners at that same hour.

Anyone can run on a day when the sky is blue, the temperature mild and the air still. Anyone can run after a good night’s sleep, feeling no fatigue or pain, a fine course at his or her feet, and no need to hurry back.

Not just anyone will get up and go out when all the conditions shout “forget it!” These are days when the other duties shove the run into the dark hours... when the course choice is dictated by convenience, not beauty... when the temperature leaves the comfort zone, the sky drops rain or snow, or the wind howls... when sleep-deprived or hung over... when tight or sore legs beg for a respite.

On these days the streakers, the blue-collar workers, the pros of running go to work as always. They go out when they feel like staying home, knowing they’re likely to feel better afterward than before, knowing they can do their good work even on the bad days.

Semi-streakers plan days of rest but don’t miss their scheduled days of running. They never ask themselves, “Will I...?” They never say, “Not this morning; I have a headache,” or, “The day’s too nasty; I’ll wait till tomorrow.” They run as planned.

What runners do, or don’t do, on those days defines them as either devotee or dabbler. Anyone who waits to run until the day is just right will never be more than a part-time, fair-weather runner.

Have you run today? Will you?

2018 Update. The long streaks of Bob Ray, Mark Covert and George Hancock eventually had to be retired. Truth be told, I don’t run much anymore myself – but at least put in miles every day at a good-paced walk. The day’s weather isn’t a go/no-go consideration.




[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, June 12, 2018

Worlds Apart


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

June 1998. Old friends can agree to disagree and remain friends. Jeff Johnson and I have been disagreeing since the 1960s, when he first questioned in writing my original story on slowing down and lengthening my training.

Jeff and I ran all-comers track meets together one summer in the early 1960s. He was a Stanford student, and I was out from Iowa to run every race I could.

That summer deepened our love for the sport to the point that we’ve never left it. The sport gave each of us a career, and only the directions we took in running differed.

Jeff once sold Tiger shoes, then helped found Nike, and now is a coach of club athletes with elite ambitions. I still do what started that summer, which is to work for a magazine.

We’ve stayed friendly for 35 years now. But that isn’t to say that we always agree on all matters, running.

He objected recently to story of mine in which I said the current shortage of world-class U.S. runners doesn’t trouble me. “The U.S. leads the world where it really counts – in distance-running participation,” I wrote.

Jeff compared this to an educator saying, “The U.S. has more people than ever reading at the fourth-grade level, yet we produce fewer scientists. Nevertheless this is evidence that the U.S. leads the world where it really counts.”

He added, “I think it possible that you and other popularizers of our sport (Runner’s World, etc.) are partly responsible for this decline in quality by ‘dumbing down’ the notion of what it takes to get to the top. For the last quarter-century the running publications have sought to expand their markets (a not-unreasonable goal) by preaching that running is easy and fun, that you can walk your way to a marathon finish, etc. All of this is true, but little or none of it aids in the advancement of performance.”

I don’t know if this message has “dumbed down” the elite who happen to read it. But I can say for certain that this message has smartened up our main audience. Many are former athletic illiterates who’ve triumphed if only by lifting themselves to a “fourth-grade” running level.

The friendly disagreement with Jeff Johnson reminds me that all runners don’t think alike. Today’s running is really two distinct sports with a growing gulf between.

On the one side are the major- and minor-leaguers; the pros, semi-pros and amateurs who live like pros. On the other side: the rest of us who run races but who have no more in common with the pros than rec-league basketball does with the NBA. (A third group of runners never races, and its activity is like shooting hoops alone in the driveway.)

The mixing of the two worlds at races is an illusion. They and we share little else there but a common course.

I write mainly for the “we’s” because there’s nothing I could tell the “they’s.” They and we run in different worlds, and these are some of the differences:

They outrun 99.9 percent of all runners. We outnumber them a thousand to one.

They are athletes. We are just runners.

They are largely young. We are mostly middle-aged and more.

They race long and fast. We race long.

They race for place and time. We race for time.

They are paid to race. We pay to race.

They train to race. We race to spice up our training.

They fit their day around training. We squeeze training into our day.

They train as much as they can. We train as little as we can get by with.

They are featured in magazines. We read the magazines.

2018 Update. I've now liked and admired Jeff Johnson for 55 years. Meanwhile, I’m more than ever before a full member of the “we” and never further from a “they.”


[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.]



Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Going Fourth


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

June 1996. With 2½ hours to fill, commentators on the recent Olympic Marathon Trials telecast were bound to let slip a few silly comments. I forgive most of them, having made some of those myself on TV.

But I can’t let one recurring theme pass. I’d hate to think that all viewers would accept it as truth because they heard it on national television. And will hear it again at the Track Trials in June, and again at the Games this summer.

Fourth place is the worst place to finish when only three places count, the commentators would have us believe. It’s off the team.

Fourth will be out of the medals at Atlanta. The runner who finishes there will be pitied as a nowhere man or woman.

This is a variation on the theme that an old coach of mine failed to teach me: “Second place ain’t worth a damn.” Another twist showed up recently as T-shirt philosophy: “If you can’t win, don’t play.”

NBC showed women in midrace at the Marathon Trials. They were on pace for the 2:30s and 2:40s, yet a voice from the booth melodramatically pronounced, “It’s all over for these runners.” He led viewers to think that anyone in a spot beyond third had given up and was just running out the clock.

We’re told that when only three places score, fourth is nothing. Lisa Rainsberger occupied that spot at every previous Women’s Marathon Trials. She said before the 1996 race that if she was running fourth again and couldn’t move up a spot, she’d “stop and tie my shoe” to let someone pass. “I’m through with fourth,” she claimed.

Looking back, though, Rainsberger might have preferred fourth to her actual 19th. For one thing, her payday differential would have been $16,500.

Fourth isn’t the worst place to finish. It earned Gwyn Coogan and Steve Plasencia hefty consolation prizes of $18,000 and $20,000 at the Marathon Trials.

But money aside, fourth isn’t a bad place to be. The runner there isn’t the first and biggest loser.

No race, not the Olympic Trials or any other, ranks runners this way. No race ends when the third runner crosses the line.

Fourth is still a better place than fifth, which beats 10th, which beats dropping out. Setting a PR is still a victory, wherever it places.

The fourth-placing marathoners aren’t tragic figures. Coogan had gone to an Olympics already in her better event, the 10,000, and could do it again. Her husband Mark will go as a marathoner.

Plasencia has already run in the Olympics twice. In 1992 he placed fourth in the 10,000 Trials and still went to Barcelona because someone ahead of him didn’t run the qualifying time.

Some marathoner could get hurt between now and August. Remember, fourth place also means first alternate.

Before the Marathon Trials, the 39-year-old Plasencia said, “Obviously it’s a mission [to make the team again]. But at this point in my career, it’s also a lot of fun.”

After running 2:14:20, faster than any American his age or older has ever done, he added, “I ran well. There were a lot of good runners behind me [including two 1992 Olympians, a world champion and a world record-holder). The guys in front of me were just better runners today, which doesn’t mean they’re better every day.”

NBC-TV would have us believe, “Nobody remembers who finishes fourth.” But Gwyn Coogan and Steve Plasencia won’t be forgotten runners – any more than Lisa Rainsberger was after her three straight fourths, or Keith Brantly was for his two fourths before he made the team this time.

Placing fourth wasn’t the end of their worlds. Nor was it for Kenny Moore (Munich Olympic Marathon), Steve Prefontaine (Munich 5000) or Don Kardong (Montreal Marathon). Remember them?

2018 Update. Twenty-two years after this column appeared, Moore and Kardong still rank among the best running writers ever. Rainsberger is mother to an All-American college runner, Katie. Prefontaine has a track meet, a book and three movies dedicated to him.


[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.]


Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Stretching a Point


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

May 2003 (retitled in the magazine). I came into running at a time when the only stretches that distance runners did were the backstretch and homestretch of a track. Stretching of the standing-still variety? I never did any; never thought a runner needed any.

This all changed in the 1970s, for me and for the sport. A doctor giving treatment for a stubborn injury asked me to bend over and touch my toes. I strained to graze my shins just below the knees. I’ve stretched ever since, with varying degrees of commitment and success.

Also in the 1970s, the decade that changed running more than any other, a new body of information declared that runners were too tight and needed to add flexibility exercises to our routine. We were told that the best corrective stretches aren’t the “ballistic” type – the quick, bouncy, repeated calisthenics we’d known from high school sports – but the “static” stretches that hold a position at the high edge of the comfort zone.

Static stretching became the standard in running. It remains so.

Thirty years later, this practice is having its worth questioned. A recent study in a British medical journal stated that stretching does little if any good in preventing injury, easing soreness or improving performance. Those are the very reasons we’ve stretched all this time.

Runners asked me, “Should I stop stretching?” (or said, “I was right all along not to stretch”). I noted that the practice would have faded away long ago if it had been identified as worthless or harmful. Yet these exercises have been a mainstay of training for the past 30 years.

Runners won’t suddenly stop stretching now, any more than we would stop running on hearing one negative report of its effects. But the questioning of stretching does lead us to take a close look at how and when we stretch, and what it might and might not do for us.

I still stretch, regularly if minimally. Each run ends with a few minutes of bending and reaching because I perceive benefits that are subtle but real.

Stretching is neither a panacea nor a pain. The bad press it has received lately hasn’t changed my practice of it or my views on the subject, which are:

Stretching is an overrated requirement. Runners become tight-muscled as a normal and necessary adaptation to the activity. Otherwise why would running do this to us? Tightness is a training effect, making for a springy stride. A certain degree of inflexibility is to be expected and accepted, but “tight enough” can lead to “too tight” without some corrective action.

Stretching isn’t just for running. What’s good for running might not be right for overall fitness. Flexibility is a piece in the fitness puzzle. Anyone seeking balanced fitness needs to counteract the super-tightening of running with some exercise giving the opposite result.

Stretching doesn’t eliminate injuries. Done wrong – too aggressively and too much – stretches cause more problems than they prevent. Done right – gently and in small doses – these exercises still don’t promise pain-free running. The Big Three – too much running, too fast, too often – cause most of our injuries.

Stretching isn’t a warmup. It doesn’t start you sweating or raise your heart rate. Done before running, it delays the true warmup. You warm up by moving – first by running slowly or walking, then by easing into the full pace of the day.

Stretching is a cooldown. Warm muscles respond best to these exercises. Run first, then stretch. Saving the stretching until the afterward has added benefits beyond flexibility. It gives you a few extra minutes to cool down before you sit down. And it gives you the option of dropping the stretches instead of cutting short the run when time is tight.

Stretching is a sign of maturity. The youthful new runner is naturally more flexible than the older longtime one. Put another way, the more years you have in life and in running, the more that stretching might help you.

Stretching started for me at age 30. It continues at 60. I don’t give this practice full credit for the past 30 mostly healthy years in between, but it hasn’t hurt.

2018 Update. At almost 75, I still stretch almost daily… but only after putting in the miles. They always come first, both physically and in priority.


[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.]