Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Winter Wanderland


(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.)

December 1999. As winters go, those in my home state of Oregon are benign. That is, if you don’t mind running wet.

Rain falls almost daily here at this time of year, December being our wettest month. But temperatures dip below freezing only about a half-dozen mornings each winter and snow appears an average of once a year.

A southern Californian once asked me, “What do you do up there on all those rainy days?” The reply: If Oregonians don’t run in the rain, they don’t run.

By habit of long standing I’m a morning runner. Winters and summers, weekdays and weekends, I leave home at seven o’clock. On days without runs I’m still out at the same time and for the same length of time, walking.

The seven A.M.s of winter are nothing like those of summer, or spring and fall for that matter. The sun is well into its climb before my July runs start, then in December I’m finished before the day is fully light. At no other hour is the gentle shifting of the seasons more visible to me, and I wouldn’t want to miss this daily light show. It’s ever-changing.

If home were still Iowa where my winter running began, I might not speak so fondly of winter mornings. But a question from a new runner living in Michigan still struck me as sad.

“I can’t run in the winter here,” she wrote. “What should I do in its place so I won’t lose too much fitness.”

I told her to get out whenever she could (and a surprising number days allow an outdoor run, even in the upper Midwest). By staying indoors, she denied herself more than fitness.

Here in Eugene there’s little excuse not to get out. Yet even in the land of the rainsuit, hat and soggy shoes I see a surprising falloff in the number of runners, summer to winter. Some choose to stay indoors on the best days, not out of laziness but an exaggerated fear of the season.

A regular route of mine passes along a creekside path. On one side is a botanical garden, on the other a fitness center.

Side-by-side treadmills look out, through a floor-to-ceiling window, on the creek and garden. Both treadmills are always occupied at the time I run past their window to the outside world.

Their users might be more fit than I am (and surely are younger, better dressed and better looking). But I think while looking in on them that there’s far more to running than fitness, and they’re missing almost everything but the training.

The run that touched off this column came on an autumn morning. The chilly air carried warnings of winter, but the day’s dawning came early enough now to let me see what I passed through and not just sense it was here by sound and smell. Flowers still bloomed, grass was still green, birds still sang.

Treadmillers miss most of this. The climate and light inside their club never change. They hear the grinding of their machines, or the background sound of music and news. They smell only themselves, each other and the deodorizers that mask the aromas of human effort.

I applaud the treadmillers for their effort, which probably is greater than mine. But I wish they would step through the plate-glass window and experience the wider world of running outside.

Exercising indoors, and in place, is like watching the natural world pass by through a car window. You see it but don’t feel it. You’re apart from it, not really a part of it.

In the gym every day is much like every other. Outdoors, no day is quite like any other.

The natives of this land have a saying: “You can’t step in the same stream twice.” It’s the same with running days. You never pass through the same one again, and they never exactly clone themselves.

Conditions of weather, qualities of light, varieties of sight and sound are forever remixing into something new. Without stepping outside, you can’t know exactly what freshness the day holds.

2018 Update. While coaching runners in Eugene since 2005, snow has canceled a team run just once. We’ll see if that good luck continues when the new year of winter training begins soon.


[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, Running with Class, 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, December 4, 2018

Rain on Our Parade


December 1997 (retitled in the magazine). Here in the Pacific Northwest, where I live and run, we don’t dream of a white Christmas but expect a wet one. Rain falls regularly and often heavily here from shortly after Labor Day to almost the Fourth of July.

So while we know less than most of you about dressing for the cold and snow, we know what to wear – and not wear – on rainy days. If you don’t run in rain here, you don’t run for half the year.

At one recent marathon that I attended, a storm rolled through on race eve. This panicked one man, who checked out of his hotel at two o’clock in the morning and later mailed back his race number, demanding a refund because officials couldn’t guarantee him a dry run.

In fact, race day was dry. But even the slight possibility of rain caused another runner to wear the high-priced rainsuit he’d bought the day before. He soon overheated and handed the suit to a stranger beside the course – and later demanded that officials retrieve it for him.

I visited another marathon that had enjoyed a streak of dry years. Now rain was forecast, and a main topic of discussion at the Saturday expo was, “What should I wear?” The office was showered with calls asking, “Will the race be canceled if it rains?”

The rain blew in overnight and stayed through marathon Sunday. It truly was a bad day – for standing and watching. Officials who honored their commitment, and spectators without a good excuse to stay home, looked miserable.

But it wasn’t a bad day for running. Temperatures were mild, winds gentle, rains light. No one would freeze or melt.

Runners who weren’t at home in these conditions started the race in the garbage bags they’d worn to the start. One man wrapped his head and neck, one knee and both feet in clear plastic bags.

Many runners reacted as if they were about to sail with the fishing fleet into a typhoon. Some wore coats, pants and gloves. They later looked like human clotheslines as they draped stripped-off items from their waists and necks. Or they littered the roadside with enough clothing to stock a Goodwill store.

They forgot some truisms of running: (1) If you feel comfortable while standing at the starting line, you’ll soon be too warm; (2) The apparent temperature warms up by 20 degrees during a run; (3) Better to underdress than overdress.

Before leaving our hotel for this race, I had told my wife Barbara, “This would be the day of my dreams if I were running a marathon.” Most of my best road-race times have come on days like this, when nature’s air-conditioning is set at “ideal.”

This day I ran half a marathon, and at a pace that wouldn’t build up much steam. Yet I wore only the usual shorts and short-sleeved shirt. The one concession to the rain was a cap to keep the drops off my glasses.

Take it from a longtime moss-backed, wet-footed runner: The widespread fear of rain is exaggerated and the contempt for it misplaced. Rain seldom spoils anything about a race except how you look in the finish-line photo.

2018 Update. I can’t convince runners to love our extended rainy season. But in 14 years of team training, rain has never canceled a run of ours.

Hazardous air quality did stop us once last year. The return of rains doused the wildfires and scrubbed the air. What’s not to love about that?


[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, Running with Class, 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, November 27, 2018

Class Acts


(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.)

November 2001 (retitled in the magazine). An early dream of mine took 40 years to come true. My high school coaches guided me so well that I wanted to grow up and be just like them.

Teaching the next generation, and if you’re lucky the one after that, is one of the highest callings in life. Watching students take what you teach and make it their own is one of life’s greatest joys. Coaching is simply teaching by another name.

My career path took a detour into journalism during college. I never coached – not in the formal, face-to-face sense, anyway, but only indirectly and impersonally on the printed page and the speaking stage.

Never coached, that is, until this year when I received the offer of a lifetime: to teach/coach running classes at the University of Oregon. I’ve learned more from the students than I’ve taught them.

These students are from running’s forgotten age. They’re too old for kids’ runs and have left high school competition behind, and they’re too young for the fitness running and road racing that their age group generally thinks of as old-people’s activities. Their parents and grandparents who run view the young as uninterested in following their lead – lazy, even.

I’ve learned otherwise. Most of my students are traditional college age, 18 to 22 or so. They run for the same reasons we elders did then.

They want to get fitter and faster, and to learn how to do that. They delight in their improvement and despair of their setbacks.

These students care about their running, and more of them want to run at the University of Oregon than the classes can accommodate. They don’t care who their teacher is, at least not at the start.

They come the first day without knowing who I am. They come as they would to any class, wondering, “Will he teach me anything to make this hour worth my time?”

Some students think not. After one first-day talk a young man said, “Your program sounds too easy for me. I’m training for marathons and triathlons.”

Yet sticking with me was a runner named Brian who’d already qualified for the Boston Marathon. Another, Liz, had run four years for the local university team and now was its assistant coach.

Abilities range widely in these classes, as do body types. Matt, a student in my racing class, ran well under 20 minutes for 5K... at 247 pounds. I’ve never seen anyone so big run so fast.

I try not to play favorites based on ability. But I can’t help feeling partial toward a woman who goes by the nickname of Max.

She joined the basic-running class in the winter and continued with introductory racing in the spring. She never finished anywhere but the back in our test runs.

Her first was an 11-minute mile, which she worked down into the low eights. She ran her first 5K race last winter, then 10K in the spring and a summer half-marathon, and she has a fall marathon in her sights.

During their track sessions, the students mingle with hotshot young athletes who finish their morning runs by striding the straightaways at speeds that brings gasps from the neophytes. The speedsters sometimes act amused by our pace and sometimes act annoyed when a beginner moves out of their way too slowly.

I’d rather work with a Max than the speedsters who think she doesn’t belong on the same track (or even in the same sport) with them. How many of them can improve their mile time by three seconds, let alone almost three minutes, in three months? How many still feel as excited as someone first finding out how much better her legs can work?

I encourage students to gauge success not by their speed or finish position but by their improvement. Runners improve dramatically at college age, by minutes at a time in distances as short as a mile or 5K.

This is a joy for me to see, even while knowing that their times would drop no matter whose training they were doing. I’m flattered that they’ve chose to try mine for a term.

My teachers/coaches were more successful than they ever knew. They taught me what I needed to know to get along without them.

The final exam for each of my students comes after the class ends. Its one question: “Will you continue running when attendance is no longer required?” If the answer is yes, we’ve both succeeded.

2018 Update. My stay in the UO P.E. department lasted 18 school years, ending only last spring. The satisfactions continue as I still see many former students on race days, on the streets and trails, and on social media.


[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, Running with Class, 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, November 20, 2018

Filling the Great Gap


(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.)

November 2000. One Sunday morning this spring I watched a marathon start in Penticton, British Columbia, then drove to the airport in nearby Kelowna. Passing through that town an hour and less than 50 miles later, I saw another marathon getting underway.

A marathon was run that same day in the neighboring province of Alberta, and one across the border in Washington state. Apparently we have enough marathoners now to let this many races co-exist.

But in darker moments I think about how marathon mania has almost entirely erased a set of perfectly fine events. The natural stepping stones leading up to the marathon – the 15- and 20-mile, 25K and 30K races – now stand nearly bare.

Road racing is polarizing as race distances move to very short or very long. The fastest-growing events on the U.S. roads are 5K’s at the one pole and marathons at the other. Fives are logical starting points for newbies and serve as speed tests for vets. Marathons are glamorous survival tests for all.

Eight-, 10- and 12K’s remain numerous and attractive. We can still find enough races of 15K, 10-miles and half-marathon.

But between the half and the marathon lies... well, not much. This 13.1-mile gap is the black hole of running.

The only nationally known races to survive in this void are the Old Kent Riverbank 25K in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the 15-mile Charleston Distance Run in West Virginia. A gem of a Canadian race is the Around the Bay 30K in Hamilton, Ontario, which happens to be three years older than Boston.

Around the Bay also happens to be my last “gap” race, run in 1998. I would run more of them if more could be found.

During my best racing years in the 1970s, the Northern California calendar alone offered a 25K in Golden Gate Park, a 15-mile in the Gold Country, a 20-mile in Sacramento and another 20 through the Coast Range, a 30K and a 17-mile on the Monterey Peninsula. I ran all of them, almost every year.

Most of these events are gone now, and this trend repeats itself across the country. The gap races are too hard to sell to runners who seem to prefer races much shorter or the marathon itself.

My suggestion for refilling the gap is to use the marathon as a sales tool for these races. Build them into marathon training.

Many of the runners I met at Around the Bay were using the 30K as training for a spring marathon. So was I, with Vancouver coming up five weeks later.

A pet belief of mine is that the best training for racing is to race. You can’t push as hard alone as you can with company on the course, and drinks, splits and cheers dealt out as you go.

This is the most enjoyable way to “train.” In fact, in my fastest racing years I did little long or fast training but ran a race almost weekly at a wide range of distances.

To work this way, the race must resemble the one you’re training for in distance and pace. When the great gap goes unfilled, we’ve lost an opportunity to train for a marathon with the support from a crowd and all the other racing amenities.

A half-marathon race isn’t long enough to serve this purpose (as I’ve learned the hard way from trying to make that long leap upward in recent years). Starting a marathon with plans to drop out after 15 or 20 miles (as I’ve also done) feels a little like failure.

Memo to marathon race directors and marathon training-group leaders: Install races of 15 and 20 miles; 25, 30 and 35 kilometers, or 16.2 miles or 26 kilometers (both about 10 miles shy of a marathon) as stepping stones to the big event. Don’t try to make them as formal or frill-filled as the marathon itself, but give runners a chance to go these distances and set PRs under official conditions.

Memo to runners: Enter these gap races when they’re offered. They’re great distances in their own right, great preparation for the realities of marathoning and great places to stop before the full reality of that distance catches you unprepared.

2018 Update. I had the misfortune and good fortune to do most of my road racing before the half-marathon was “invented.” This deprived me of chances of run that distance when most fit for it. Yet I also had abundant opportunities to go the “gap” distances, few of which still exist as races.


[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, Running with Class, 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.]