Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Boston 2013

(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 2013.)

ONCE YOU run the Boston Marathon, you never really leave it. You come back each April, if only in powerful and enduring memory.

I hadn’t been in Boston on marathon weekend since 1990. The last of my four runs had come in 1979, the first of those had been way back in 1967.

But that doesn’t mean my connection to this place and race had weakened over the years. I go to Boston every Patriots Day, and never more so than in 2013.

As always, I’d jumped online early and from 3000 miles away to track the progress of a long list (longer each year) of friends running there. I had checked in many of them at the finish before leaving home for a lunch date with another Boston Marathon veteran.

Online results had stopped as runners with projected times in the low fours should have finished. This wasn’t unusual. Searches like mine often overwhelmed Boston’s Internet server on marathon day.

I met Neal Benson in a brew pub. He wore his T-shirt from the centennial race of 1996. As we sat down, he glanced at a silent TV screen nearby, then his eyes widened.

“Hey, that’s Boston,” he said. I turned around to see smoke in the picture.

Marathoners and spectators ran away from the finish line. Soon, police and medics raced toward the lingering smoke.

“It looks like there’s a fire,” said Neal. Then he checked his phone for bulletins.

“Oh, no! There have been two explosions. They’re saying many casualties.”

We didn’t eat that noon. Neal went to his home and I to mine to follow this grim news.

My greatest concern was for the same two dozen runners whose progress I’d tracked earlier. Only now it wasn’t about their times but about their safety.

Imagine the anguish of those who were closer to them, both in proximity and relationship, who couldn’t immediately see or hear from their loved ones. Cell and wifi services were jammed. Local transport was stalled.

Amazingly, we would learn later, that despite the power of these blasts and the carnage among spectators in the immediate area no runner in the entire field was seriously injured. This doesn’t mean, though, that anyone there was left unshaken by the too-near miss.

I heard about Leanne Mohr from her sister Laurel, who co-taught a running class with me that year. Leanne had finished but not yet left the recovery area when chaos struck. With no rides available, she had to walk the six miles to her housing.

Cathy Troisi reached me late that night, Boston time. She enters annually as a fund-raiser for cancer research, to honor her late daughter. Cathy was to meet her host at the finish but didn’t get there after the race was halted. Not knowing exactly where her friend lived, she took hours to find the place.

Facebook finally told me that several Eugene friends were safe. Rachel Modee had run her first marathon with our team (but had qualified on her own). Bella Richardson coached another team in our town, and she ran here along with husband Trae. All had finished, then endured hotel lockdowns.

Jacqueline Hansen was in Boston as an honored guest, on the 40th anniversary of her victory there. (I had finished editing her book, A Long Time Coming, earlier that spring.) An all-access pass let Jacqueline stand near the finish line, which she left shortly before the explosions.

I knew John Johnson and his son Paul from our yearly visits to Jeff Galloway’s running camp at Lake Tahoe. They lived in my old hometown of Los Altos, California. John was on the homestretch, mere yards from where the second bomb went off. He wasn’t hurt, but his worries turned to his boy – a fully qualified Boston marathoner who is mentally handicapped – not knowing for too long that Paul was safe.

My last time in Boston, 1990, I had stood at almost the exact spot where John Johnson experienced this blast. I’d waited there for my wife Barbara’s son, Chris Hazen, to finish in 4:10. That was almost exactly the time when the bombers would strike 23 years later. The distance between Boston and Oregon, and between 2013 and 1990, would never seem shorter.

A MONTH after the bombing, with the sport still shaken, Rich Benyo at Marathon & Beyond asked me and others to comment on his statement and question titled “The Aftermath.” He asked, “Can each of you comment on what long-term effect you feel this atrocity will have on the sport and lifestyle of marathon running?”

My contribution: This tragedy hit close to home for all of us, no matter how far from Boston we were on April 15th. Our first thought was, Are my friends there okay? Our second thought: I could have been there myself. Only later did we think how much and for how long the aftershocks might rattle the sport.

My hometown marathon in Eugene was one of the first post-Boston races. The local media went into a frenzy over potential risks here.

However, local organizers took reasonable and unfortunately now necessary precautions with security upgrades, but these were largely invisible to the runners. Few if any of them stayed away out of fear for their safety, nor did many volunteers or spectators abandon their posts. 

I trust this will remain true nationwide, as we remember Boston 2013 without overreacting to it. As in the running itself, we must not let the remote threat of something going terribly wrong keep us from taking part in all that will likely go wonderfully right on marathon day. 

Photo: Meb Keflezighi, an American by choice, responded to the 2013 attack on America by winning the 2014 race.

[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, November 22, 2017

What Next?

(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 2012.)

WHAT WILL YOU do as a runner after you’ve run almost everything? That’s a question I hope you don’t need to answer right now and won’t for quite awhile.

There’s much to do in running and a long time to do it. Whether you start at 15 or 50, you’re given a good 10 years to improve your PRs.

You can increase your distances just about infinitely. You can run from sprints to ultras… on roads flat to mountainous… on trails and cross-country courses… on tracks outdoors and in.

You can run alone, with partners, in crowds small to large and on relay teams. You can travel as far and as often to races as your budget allows.

I did most of that. I raced distances as short as 100 yards and dabbled in ultras as long as 70 miles… ran midpack at national cross-country and road championships… won races, finished last and didn’t finish at all… traveled to marathons coast to coast, and races in most states and outside U.S. borders… set PRs that now are all older than my eldest child.

So what am I doing now that I’ve run nearly everything? Still running, of course, but not as training for anything except life. The miles are fewer and easier.

Only as my last stay at a magazine was ending did I ask myself the “what next?” question. But I’d begun answering it unconsciously much earlier.

In 2001, I came to a fork in life’s path. Running had long since settled into its senior-adult role (which is to say short, slow and solo).

I thought I’d retired from marathons (though they would resurface occasionally in later years). I hadn’t truly raced a race (as opposed to running in one) in 20 years, and hadn’t tried another ultra in 30.

What next? Before I could ask that of myself, a new opportunity arose unsought.

The University of Oregon needed a teacher for its running classes in the P.E. department, and my name came up as a prospect. My wife Barbara said, “Take it. You’ll love it.”

And she was right. The one-term assignment grew to year-round teaching, every year, and later spawned coaching a training for marathons and halves.

Which again raises this column’s opening question: What will you do after you’ve done almost everything as a runner?

You couldn’t do much better than passing on what you know and love about this sport. This might become the most rewarding phase of your running life, as it has been mine.

There’s much you can do this way, short of the teaching and coaching I’ve lucked into. You can advise, assist, praise, pace, cajole, console in less formal ways.

Your own running is necessarily self-centered. You must focus on your own health and fitness, your distances and times. A support role can’t be all, or even much, about you. After taking care of our own biggest business, though, you can help others work on theirs.

These days with these runners I’m not someone who used to race fairly fast or a name from the bylines. They don’t know that or need to know more than who they see: a grizzled guy with a clipboard, a stopwatch and a proud smile. The time we spend together is about their running, not mine.

I don’t coach online but only in person. I limit the group in size (though never by ability) so I can get know every runner’s backstory and can call each one by name at least once each day.

We first come together as strangers, then become teammates, friends and finally a family of sorts. I gain more from these runners this way than I give to them in training and racing tips.

SUBSTITUTE THE WORD “write” for “run” in this chapter’s opening question and you see the related question that I’m addressing here: What will I do as a writer after I’ve written almost everything?

I’ve written for a small hometown newspaper, a college paper and a statewide daily... about news, all sports, my favorite sport and the distance-running branch of this sport... for the three other magazines before settling in at Marathon & Beyond... in booklets and books, of my own and in concert with other authors.

Other writers know their special area of running expertise better than I. But few, if any, have covered the sport in as many ways for as long.

I’ve written personal, practical, technical, historical, statistical, biographical, physiological, psychological and philosophical reports. I’ve said about all I have to say, to the point of repeating myself.

So after a seven-year run with Marathon & Beyond (and before that, 33 years with Runner’s World, and brief early stints with Track & Field News and Running magazine), this served as my farewell-to-magazine-writing column. I yielded the space to someone with a greater need to fill it, while I went further in the direction I already was headed: teaching and coaching runners who hadn’t read much of anything, and still had their best running experiences ahead of them.

Photo: Standing and supporting has replaced racing for me, including greeting Jean Cordova during the Eugene Marathon.

[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, November 15, 2017

Celebrate Life

(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 2011.)

NINETY-NINE-point-nine-nine percent of the time I run alone. Most runs end before the sun peeks above the hills on our eastern horizon. Few runs repeat the same lap more than a handful of times.

One run this year broke all those habits. It circled a high school track for dozens of laps. The black surface intensified the heat of the midday sun. I joined a crowd of hundreds, mostly walkers, many of whom drifted into the runners-only inside lane.

I left my loner comfort zone for the best of reasons. This was our town’s annual Relay for Life, which supports cancer causes, remembers the casualties, honors the survivors, praises the caregivers. I ran for all those reasons, plus to give thanks that I could still do this.

The first 24 years of these local Relays had passed me by nearly unnoticed, though relatives and friends had fought through or lost to cancer. Then I was diagnosed myself with prostate cancer. It was treated early and apparently successfully, and left me with new appreciation for how quickly good health can turn bad – and often can return to good again through the miracles of modern medicine.

In my first post-treatment summer I ran 45 laps of the Relay, one for each day I’d spent in radiation. I ran from predawn to sunrise – to symbolize passing from the darkness of diagnosis into the light of recovery, but more prosaically to minimize heat and crowding on the track.

When planning my return to the Relay, I realized that the first run had been too easy. Dealing with cancer is never ever easy, so I would raise the toughness level by starting at noon when the day was hottest and the numbers were highest.

During opening ceremonies I stood with Jerry Stromme, a graduate of my marathon training team. What he was doing was much bigger and more selfless than what I had in mind. He never had cancer himself but came here to support those who do or did have the disease that the Relay combats.

Jerry expressed surprise at seeing my here. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen you running,” he said. I joked that “it’s my kind of event. You can start anytime you want and stop whenever you like.”

But this wasn’t true for either of us. We both had our plans. His was to total 250 laps, or 100 kilometers. Mine was far less noteworthy – to run for two hours, one for each year that had come between the dark days of exam and treatment rooms and this bright summer afternoon.

My plan took its last and best twist as I was about to leave home for the track. I cut note cards into thin strips and wrote the name of someone to remember, honor or thank on each lap.

I wore shorts with pockets. As each lap began, I pulled a name card at random from the left pocket, ran around the track holding that person in my hand, then deposited the mini-card in the right pocket and drew another name for the next lap.

WHILE UNDERGOING treatment I had promised to become an activist in matters of prostate-cancer awareness “after taking care of personal business.” Each Fathers’ Day I help with a wonderfully named event, the Prost8K. All proceeds go toward funding a free cancer-screening event a few weeks later.

About 1000 men are tested each summer, and 100 of them have results suspicious enough to warrant further checking. Some cancers are caught when the odds of successful treatment are greatest.

I’ve seen detection work two ways. One of my grandfathers didn’t have any chance to survive once his prostate cancer revealed itself. One of his sons, my uncle, was tested early, treated and remained healthy 20 years later, in his 90s.

A urologist found my cancer early, and two years after treatment I was doing fine. I wanted the same for as many other men as possible.

I also want runners to know that our activity doesn’t grant us immunity. Marathon legend Bill Rodgers and Olympic marathon qualifier Benji Durden know that as well as I do.

Each of the men named above was among my honorees at Relay for Life. My two hours ran out before the cards did, and I had to carry several at once on the final lap – which wasn’t truly the last. The best two laps came later, at sundown.

The first was for survivors, walked (slowly, to savor the moment) with hundreds of fellow purple-shirted cancer veterans. Looking at many of them, I saw myself as lucky to have had one of the more treatable forms. I saw too that we were all the lucky ones to have outlived our disease so far.

Immediately after this victory lap came another, where we joined our caregivers. I walked with granddaughters Paige and Shaye, ages seven and five, who had given their care without knowing it.

None of us patients had to came this far back on our own. This had been a “we” effort, not an “I.”

Notice that there’s no mention here of how far I ran in two hours or at what pace. I’m not telling because those results wouldn’t impress you and because this wasn’t a race. There are other ways besides the numbers on a GPS or stopwatch to define running well.

Walking away from the track at dusk, with a granddaughter at each hand, we saw my friend Jerry Stromme still running. He had been on the track for eight hours already and would run well into the night before finishing his 100K-for-a-cause.

Photo: Blue-shirted veterans of prostate cancer gather each summer for the well-named Prost8K.

[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, November 8, 2017

Home Work

(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 2010.)

IT TOOK ME a long time to find a home in my hometown. I only finally found it because a few people here asked me to help them.

Mine isn’t just any town. It’s Eugene, Oregon, which rightly calls itself “TrackTown USA.” Some here would also have you believe that Eugene is the running capital of the known universe. By one measure, number of runners per capita, they might be right.

But for me, for too long, Eugene could have been just about anywhere that offered an airport to leave from, for speaking to groups of runners I would seldom see again. Eugene also offered a hideout to come back to, and write for readers who were largely invisible. I took almost no part in the vibrant running community here.

I ran alone and never raced here. I joined no running club and volunteered at no local race.

In a town with so many runners, it was easy to hide in plain sight. Too easy.

Only rarely would I talk with runners here. If they knew my name from some article or book, they would ask, “Are you visiting here to work on a story or to cover a race?” I’d laugh and say, “No, I’ve lived here since 1981.”

Living this way let me get lots of work done. But it also left a void, which became most apparent as I watched Eugene’s biggest race one July 4th.

Illness had kept me from making an annual appearance at a race in Iowa that year. Now, as the thousands of Eugene runners paraded past, I recognized few of them.

After commenting on this to my wife Barbara, she said, “You need to get out more often.” She didn’t mean out of town, but out in town, mixing with the locals. Her nudge led to a satisfying series of events that caused a steep decline in travel and a corresponding increase in non-writing work in my hometown.

I initiated none of these events. They resulted from the right person here in town asking the right question at the right time.

A graduate student was scheduled to teach a running class at the University of Oregon, but she had to pull out. When that slot needed filling quickly, my name came up.

“Let me think about it for a day and then get back to you,” I told Becky Sisley, the teacher doing the hiring. I was torn between a chance to teach and concern about how this extra duty might affect the writing and speaking.

I made the right choice by taking the assignment. This became my first real opening, ever, to think locally and act locally.

From the start in 2001, I loved the teaching. Since 2005 I’ve also coached marathon training teams. This happened again because someone, Bob Coll from the Eugene Running Company, asked me to do it at the moment when I was ready to accept.

Finally I know Eugeneans and am known as one myself. This was never so obvious as July 4th, 2008. I knew too many of the runners in that day’s big race to find all their faces and shout all their names. Finally I’ve come home to my hometown.

GUIDING TRAINING classes and groups doesn’t count as volunteerism because cash changes hands, if only in modest sums. Volunteers work for the purest of reasons, because a job needs to be done and is worth doing for free.

In 2008, I finally did this locally – at our town’s two biggest events, the Eugene Marathon and the 2008 Olympic Trials for track and field. Unpaid help was abundant at both, and you might think: Who wouldn’t want to help here, where runners and track fans abound?

Yes, Eugene has a rich tradition in this sport. But as recently as 2005 the new marathon in the Running Capital and the return of the Trials to TrackTown existed only as dreams of a few big-thinkers here.

Eugene needed what all cities need when launching an event: organizers willing to take chances, sponsors to fund that risk-taking, and volunteers to bring the dreams and plans to life.

Organizers in Eugene trusted that the essential battalions of unpaid helpers would follow, and they did. I joined them because two people asked, “Can you help?”

Janet Heinonen, editor of the Trials souvenir program, brought me onto her publishing team. Richard Maher, director of the marathon, solicited my help with the speakers’ program.

In the massive scale of the Trials, my contribution was minuscule. I wrote several short, unbylined articles – for free because everyone else donated their services. Kenny Moore, the sport’s best-known (and best-paid) writer contributed his lead article at no charge because volunteerism was the spirit of this event.

The same spirit moved the 2008 Eugene Marathon. As a two-time Olympian, Dathan Ritzenhein could command a hefty fee for any appearance, and could afford to turn down any that didn’t pay enough. But as a Eugenean he agreed to speak fee-free at the expo, then doubled the next morning by firing the starting gun.

Speaking as a late-arriving volunteer, my message at the Portland Marathon’s race-directors conference later that year was: Don’t be too shy or proud to ask that most flattering of questions: “Can you help me?” People love be asked, love to feel needed, love the feeling afterward that they gained more than they gave.

Now, finally, I know this feeling. My message to you runners is: Hold up your volunteering hand even before being asked. Don’t miss your chance, as I did for too long, to help out in your own hometown.

Photo: My local volunteering began, belatedly, at the Eugene Marathon.

[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.]