Wednesday, September 6, 2017

First Class

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 2001.)

THE CO-STAR of the book and movie Seabiscuit was his trainer, Tom Smith. The racehorse didn’t talk, so Smith spoke the most memorable line: “A horse doesn’t care how much you know until it knows how much you care.”

Two-legged runners feel the same way, I reminded myself in 2001 while greeting my first class as a running teacher at the University of Oregon. These students didn’t know me, or I them.

They saw only a short guy, old enough to be their dad or grandpa, standing before them. I saw faces that silently challenged me to make waking up at this early hour worth their while.  I hoped they would give me a chance to show that I cared about them and knew the sport.

The oldest student was 30, but most were typical college age – late teens to early 20s. Though this was billed as a beginning class, many had dabbled in running and wanted to know more, and a few have done more than dabble – such as running the Bloomsday 12K.

Our first run was a test mile. “Don’t race,” I warned, “but run at a pace that you feel you could hold for two or three times this distance.”

Put two or more runners – even new ones, young and especially males – together and a race can break out. The leader started at five-minute pace and finished above six.

The first woman ran as if she’d done this before, and groaned when she heard her time shouted. After a cooldown lap, each student had to report name and time because I didn’t know the former or remember the latter.

“Courtney Smith, 6:30,” she told me. “Did you run on a high school team?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “I was a cheerleader. My mother was a fast runner, but I disappointed her by not going out for track or cross-country.”

Later I learned that Courtney’s mother Judy had been a teammate of running pioneer Doris Brown Heritage. They’d run together in the 1969 World Cross-Country Championships, which Doris had won (during her five-year winning streak there). Another of Judy’s daughters, Lauren, had contended for state high school titles both on the track and in the pool.

Courtney now lingered to chat after the other students had moved on to their next class. “I talked with Mom last night and told her about our mile time-trial. She asked what time we started and said she would send good wishes then.”

I asked why the time had made her groan. “This only tied my best,” she said. “I really wanted to break 6:30.”

I joked, “Would you have felt better if I’d fudged and given you a 6:29?” She told me, “No way. I have to earn it.”

Her mother can be proud that she raised a true runner – a pair of them, in fact. Courtney would move on to run dozens of marathons. Her sister Lauren would compete in several Bostons and become an Ironwoman triathlete.

EARLY IN MY running-teaching career I had the great fortune to see my first coach, Dean Roe, for the first time in more than 30 years. We greeted each other with a hug, which coach and athlete (and men in general) didn’t do long ago.

Our talk moved quickly to his past athletes. I wasn’t the only one to receive Coach Roe’s gifts.

Norm Johnston almost carried on to make the 1968 Olympic team, missing by just three places in the decathlon. Rex Harvey rose to national class as a decathlete in the 1970s.

The truest measure of a coach’s success isn’t what athletes do while they’re with him, but what they take with them when they leave his team. By that standard Dean Roe has sent hundreds of winners into the world. I hope to send some, too.

My last day of each class is always bittersweet. I’ve gotten to know these runners and won’t see them again as a group.

“I won’t suddenly forget you,” I tell them. “Contact me if you have any questions about running.”

Few ever do, and that’s a good sign. Educated and experienced runners don’t need me anymore.

Students don’t even ask much of me when we’re together. I never run with them, leaving them to talk among themselves as only running-mates can do.

By going off without me, they see that the class is about their running and not mine. I’m there to plan, advise and cheer, but not to be anywhere near the center of their attention.

I try to teach students not to need me for long. Most of each run, and the runs outside of class, and the future running I hope they’ll do, must come without a teacher watching.

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

I’m happiest when I see a former student, one who left class months or years earlier, running through town. Or, better yet, when one comes up to say hello at a race.

Or, best of all, when we meet at a marathon. That student has gone on to “graduate school” in this sport, and this was graduation day.

Photo: Two generation of Smith runners, my student Courtney and her mother, former international competitor Judy.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from 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, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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