(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 2002.)
YOU NEVER know who will catch fire as a runner, and flame the brightest and longest. This was one of my first lessons learned as a teacher of running. If first impressions had ruled, I would have judged a woman named Max wrongly on the first day of my first class.
She walked in carrying a motorcycle helmet and wearing boots, bleached hair, enough metal piercings to set off alarms, and a tough look. The roster listed her name as Angela Skorodinsky, a grad student who was 32 at the time. When the class survey form asked what she preferred to be called, she wrote “Max.” It fit – short and strong, just like her.
The class began with a timed mile. Not an all-out mile race but a simple run to draw a fitness baseline. Max lagged a half-lap behind the next-to-last finisher, running (with some walking) 11:02.
Afterward she complained about how hard it had been, how finishing so far back had embarrassed her, how she wanted to look for a different fitness class. I gave my your-best-is-good-enough pitch. Somehow the words worked, and Max kept trying.
When our first class together ended as it had begun, with a one-mile test. she asked, “What splits do I need to run to break nine minutes?”
Ten weeks earlier she would have thought a split was a stretching exercise. Two months earlier she couldn’t have imagined improving by two minutes, and now she’d made it possible.
Again she chugged along in last place, but now a close last. She paced herself perfectly, then groaned while pushing each of her final steps to shave seconds.
“Eight fifty-five,” I called to her. She thrust her fist into the air and shouted, “Yeeesss!”
Max Skorodinsky didn’t stop running after one class. She returned the next term, entering a 5K race and then a 10K.
A year after her shaky start, Max decided without any prodding from her teacher that she would run the Portland Marathon. She plotted her own training.
I only saw her a few times that summer, but she emailed regular progress reports. She listed a pair of two-hour-plus runs, both on a riverside bike path at night.
Normally I’d warn a woman against running alone then and there, but not Max. She was a rugby player who knew just where to kick and how hard.
Her midterm test of marathon training was a local half-marathon race. “Damn, that’s a long way!” she said at the end of it. “Now I have to think about going twice this far.”
I assured her she’d be okay if she did the needed training between July and October. She did, pushing the long runs on up while continuing to run them alone at night.
The 2002 Portland Marathon was the first that any of my students ran. The last of them to finish, and the happiest and proudest, was Max.
She’s short but ran tall, seemingly a foot off the ground, as she finished. Her time was 5:08.
When I greeted Max in the chute, she turned and pointed to a cloth sign on her back. I still choke up while recalling its words: “Thanks, Joe.”
Thanks go to her. She’d planned and carried out the training, she’d run the distance, and she’d taught me not to write off any runner.
A year later Max would improve her original time by 21 minutes. Her pace, 11:02, was exactly the time she had run the first day in my class – at one-twenty-sixth of the marathon distance.
(Note: This 2002 article used female pronouns for Max, who’s pictured here. He now uses the male version. This might have been his biggest win.)
[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, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]