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.]

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