Monday, December 31, 2018

The End?


(2004) Jobs, like races, have finish lines. These seldom come at exactly the time you expect or hope. But whatever the result, you accept it and move on. The only other option is to give up for good.

My job as a columnist for Runner’s World lasted much longer than I ever thought it would, in two phases totaling 33 years. But I knew this would end someday, and it did with a phone call during Christmas week 2003.

David Willey, the new editor, was charged by his bosses at parent company Rodale with redesigning Runner’s World. We can argue whether the choices were the right ones or not, but they came anyway.

He called me in December to say that my RW column had “run its course” and would breathe its last in the March 2004. This wasn’t simply an out-with-all-old step. The remaining columnists, Amby Burfoot and John Bingham, weren’t far behind me in age and were also long-timers with the magazine.

The new editor made me the same offer as the other columnists – notably Jeff Galloway, who accepted. That was to keep writing occasionally in other parts of the magazine, such as feature articles and how-to columns with multiple contributors. I declined, so the decision on my leaving was mutual.

I said no to the new role because I’d been trained and spoiled by columns, which are personal letters from writer to reader. That style isn’t a good fit outside the boundaries of the column.

I’d already submitted my last column. So the only chance to sign off was on the magazine’s website, where I wrote:

“From my RW finish line this is good-bye to you readers. I never took my page for granted and always felt honored to talk to so many of you this way. Thanks for lending me your eyes and thoughts, and for sometimes sharing your agreements and disagreements, through the past 250 straight months of columns. Keep running and reading.”

The demise of my Runner’s World column didn’t come as a shock to me. It felt more like a lingering death in the family – sad when it finally came, to be sure, but also bringing some relief that the waiting for the inevitable was over.

I wasn’t long without a writing home. Marathon & Beyond magazine took me in. Rich Benyo and Jan Seeley, M&B’s editor and publisher, would hand me their “On the Road” column after current columnist Barry Lewis’s term expired in midyear.

This truly felt like a homecoming since it brought me back together with Rich. We’d never been too far apart since first meeting in 1977.

On mutual friend Hal Higdon’s recommendation, Rich came for a job interview at Runner’s World. I helped hire him as my future replacement editor, where he served a term exactly the same length as mine had been.

When he bailed out at RW after seven hectic years, Rich became co-director of the Napa Valley Marathon. He invited me there as a speaker in the early 1990s and has kept the invitations coming ever since.

We worked longest and most closely (if 500 miles apart and by email is “close”) on the biggest book either of us has written. We wouldn’t or couldn’t have done it alone, but together we produced the Running Encyclopedia.

We know we team up well. Now, finally, we had the chance to do that again with a magazine.

I would enjoy just as much working with publisher Jan Seeley. We don’t have a Benyo-length connection, but still a long and good one. Jan served as an editor at Human Kinetics when I first hooked up with that Champaign, Illinois, company as an author in the mid-1990s.

Later Jan co-edited, with husband Joe Seeley, the RRCA magazine FootNotes during its very best years. Jan made me feel part of the M&B family even when I wasn’t. Our best “reunion’ came each summer at the Dick Beardsley Marathon Camp in Minnesota.

The move to Marathon & Beyond felt like a homecoming in another way. M&B reads like the old Runner’s World, when stories were longer and meatier, giving readers more credit for knowledge and experience.

Marathon & Beyond knows we had something good going then, and still honors it. I think of M&B as the New Yorker of running magazines, where Rich and Jan let the writers write in our own ways and at whatever length the subject requires. The writing is deeper and purer here than anywhere short of a book.

2019 Update. When Runner’s World let me go, I still had much ground to cover as writer/author (as well as a teacher/coach). This year I post the continuing columns, many of which went into my book Next Steps. It’s literally a log of those next steps forward after RW said I was finished.


[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.]


Monday, December 24, 2018

Why Running Still Matters


(This piece ends the 50th anniversary year of my first article in Runner’s World magazine.)

December 2001. The September day when everything changed began the same as all days do for me. I woke up early but kept the radio and television quiet for the first hour. I didn’t know that the world as we’d known it was crumbling in that same hour.

The morning’s silence, and its peace, ended just before I went out to run. I listened, stunned, to the bulletins on the seven o’clock news. Each report sounded worse than the one before.

Since that day I’ve heard from many runners. They were about equally split between those who ran anyway but felt guilty about it and those who couldn’t bring themselves to run because it seemed suddenly unimportant, even disrespectful.

My day’s run was slow to start. But I never thought about not starting it and never felt this act trivialized the tragedy.

Running still mattered, and now more than ever. To head out anyway on a day like this wasn’t heartless or selfish; just the opposite.

I wasn’t going out to play, but to worry and to mourn. This run opened my heart to thoughts about the pain of others.

No one could run away from a problem this immense. At most a hard, mind-numbing run could act as a brief escape from horrible, non-stop news that threatened to overwhelm us.

Running serves better by letting us run with a problem instead of getting away from it. A run can turn down the volume and slows the pace of events – away from the radio, TV, computer, car, job – and can let us stare the problem in the face.

Such runs can be wrenching, as tears and fears rise up with nothing to deflect them. This is a necessary part of healing, since letting ourselves feel our worst helps us start to get better.

We could do the same by going for a walk or bike ride, or just sitting in a quiet room. But running is where we’re likely to turn in the bad times because this is a friend we know so well.

Some tragedies are national ones that we all must endure together. More often they are the personal blows that strike each of us, and we must work through them on our own.

My father died suddenly and much too soon (at a younger age than mine now). That loss hit me so hard that I couldn’t write a word about it, or anything else, for a long time.

Yet in those darkest of days I never missed a run. He was a former runner himself and a great lifelong fan of the sport, but I didn’t use the comforting line, “He would have wanted me to keep running.”

That would have been a minor truth. The real reason I kept running was because I needed it, and then more than ever.

Running when you’re hurting inside is important. How you approach the run also matters. Such as:

Run alone unless you have a companion who knows you well enough to let you drop your happy face and brave front. Run only with someone who’ll let you talk or stay still as needed.

Run quietly, far away from the noise of traffic (and the dangers of competing with cars while lost in thought). Leave your headset behind, along with its distracting and upsetting voices.

Run simply. Plan nothing hard or complex (no interval sessions, no races, no time trials), but slip into an auto-pilot pace that lets you think far beyond what you’re running at the moment.

Running can’t solve the world’s problems, nor can it make your own disappear. That isn’t the purpose of a crisis-run.

What the running on those days does is let you step away from ground zero, look inside yourself, and sort through your thoughts and emotions before coming back to wrestle with the new realities. That’s why running still matters – more than ever.

2018 Update. Weekly reruns of columns from my years with Runner’s World end with this one. All 200 of them that ran under the title “Joe’s Journal” now combine in the book This Runner’s World. Writings from Marathon & Beyond magazine will begin to appear here next week.


[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 18, 2018

Lessons from Layoffs


(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 2000. As the old century ended, I thought I’d solved the running puzzle at last. My measure of success is no longer times posted or distances run, but health maintained, and in 1999 no injury or illness interrupted my running in the slightest.

The year 2000 served as a reminder that we never have everything figured out. We either repeat old mistakes or make new ones. The only records I set were for days of running missed entirely and others stopped short.

A mysterious illness was to blame. I still don’t know exactly what it was, and for want of a better name I’ll call it “flu.”

It never made me down-in-bed ill, but its low-grade fever dampened interest in exercising or eating. These symptoms recurred every other week for nearly two months, reducing running from little to none.

The illness left only my imagination active: Could this be chronic-fatigue syndrome that has wrecked many a running life? Or might it be something far more dreaded?

A series of doctor visits told me only what I did not have, which can be comforting in itself. The tests ruled out the worst prospects.

With never a specific diagnosis or any special treatment, the illness vanished as mysteriously as it had arrived. Now that it’s gone and I’ve learned to run again, I see that the downtime wasn’t all bad. It prompted me to look at what went wrong, and it reminded me not to take trouble-free running for granted.

A long-lasting injury or illness can be good for any runner. The longer the layoff – as in weeks, months or even a year or more – the better the lessons about what running really means to you.

Your illness or injury was probably no accident. I see now that my “flu” was likely an after-effect of an unplanned marathon, run with too little training in advance and too short a recovery period afterward. These combined shocks ran me down and allowed a virus to invade.

This latest episode is no more than a bump in the road compared to my worst scare. It came as a heel injury (caused by racing too often) that didn’t allow a pain-free step for almost a year.

Finally I surrendered to surgery. My is-this-the-end fears didn’t start to subside until the first runs after the operation went better than expected.

The repaired foot let me return to racing but never again with the old intensity and frequency. I wouldn’t, and still won’t, train or race so hard and fast that it puts the more important runs at risk.

As you come out of a dark spell and begin to run again, you see what means the most in your running. This is not finishing a marathon or taking the long runs that lead up to one, nor shorter races or training fast to prepare for them.

What you missed most during the downtime was getting out for your daily runs. You promise yourself not to get greedy again anytime soon. To keep that vow, you need long memory that won’t let you forget how bad your last forced “vacation” felt.

I don’t wish for anything bad to happen to anyone. But it happens to most of us eventually, no matter how careful we might be.

When it does, remember that a career-threatening injury or illness can be good for you. You don’t fully appreciate running – I’d go so far as to say you don’t truly become a runner – until you’ve almost had it taken away.

2018 Update. No forced layoff in later years has approached the one recounted here. The lessons learned 18 years ago have lasted.


[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, 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 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.]