Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Victory


(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Next Steps.)

2004. Victories come in many sizes and shapes, but the biggest of them are alike in one way. They aren’t won on a single day, but in the training done and experience gained over the previous months and years.

In May 2004, I had a slight brush with Deena Kastor. She was well into her Olympic training by then, having made the team in the marathon.

On this night she wore an evening gown while accepting an award and giving the keynote speech at the Road Runners Club of America convention. My wife Barbara and I sat near the podium, nodding in agreement and appreciation of all that Deena said, while hoping she would stand on a higher podium come August.

I too received an RRCA award this night, for writing. Barb insisted that we both go to the convention at Lake Tahoe, though she went against doctors’ advice to be there.

She was in the first and worst phase of cancer therapy, the chemo. She’d been told not to travel long distances or to mix with big crowds, but had done both.

Chemo-induced fatigue took her back to our room before my late talk. She didn’t hear me compare her to Deena Kastor as they both traveled hard roads to distant goals that year.

Barb doesn’t think of herself as an athlete. She never played sports outside of gym classes. But she approached her biggest challenge as an Olympic runner would her biggest race.

Looking at an entire training plan for, say, a marathon can be overwhelming in its size when it lasts six months or more. So we break it into small pieces, weekly increments and individual runs, then log them one at a time. Eventually this adds up to something as big as we’d planned at first.

This is how Barb viewed her illness: frightening as a whole but manageable if looked at as “workouts” to be checked off one at a time. Only these weren’t long runs and speed training; they were diagnostic tests, chemotherapy, surgery and radiation.

She had times of doubt, as athletes do while training – times when the goal appears too distant to reach. She had disagreements with her doctors, as runners sometimes have with their coaches. She had setbacks, like the injuries athletes go through.

Later that summer a dinner party celebrated Barbara’s 60th birthday. It was the biggest one we’d ever held at our house, because this was more than a birthday party.

For one, it was the first time that both of Barb’s sisters, Paula and Lynda, had been with her in three years. The occasion then was a family wedding in Vancouver, British Columbia. The marriage of her son Chris and Cindy Chan had produced our first grandchild, Paige, now about to celebrate a first birthday of her own.

Arrival in the new age group wasn’t Barb’s only or best reason for this party. This also was a victory celebration.

By her 60th birthday Barb’s hair was growing again, the color returning to her cheeks, and the sparkle of energy and enthusiasm to her eyes.  The recent tests gave her an all-clear. So the birthday party doubled as a victory celebration.

After six months of “training” she seemed to have won. She knew, as athletes do, that victories are seldom final. But the outcome of this event was good because she did what had to be done, one session at a time.

2019 Update. This victory wasn’t final. Barbara enjoyed a 10-year break from cancer, then was diagnosed as Stage Four – a spread of the disease that made it treatable but not curable. At this writing, more than five years further along, the treatment – led by an oncologist who runs ultras – has fought her cancer to a standstill.

(Photo: Barbara (with hair starting to return) at her 2004 “victory party” with sisters Paula and Lynda.)


[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, January 14, 2019

The Students


(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Next Steps.)

2004. I teach classes of college-age runners, but my proposal for adding a marathon class there went nowhere. The given reasons: You can’t spread it over two terms, as the buildup in mileage would have required. You can’t meet just once a week for three or more hours, to accommodate the all-important long run.

The unspoken reasons: You won’t find enough students (12 was minimum enrollment at the time) to put this class into play. You won’t interest kids in running this far, which is too tough for them anyway.

Natalie Provost proved otherwise. She was new to the University of Oregon when she took my 10K class. She noted her age as 18 on the info sheet but might have passed for a high school freshman.

She looked frail even by the slim standards of distance runners. Her running form was... let’s just say far from fluid. But she had invisible traits of mind that would separate her from her classmates.

I never tried to change Natalie’s form. Why tamper with what worked for her, trying to replace it with form that might not fit her? She already could cruise her training runs at sub-seven-minute pace – and could outrun most of the men.

Natalie never asked me if she should run a marathon. If she had, I might have discouraged her – told her to add a few more years of physical maturity first.

Instead she asked, “Where would you recommend I run my first marathon? I heard that Napa has a good one.” I agreed that it does. Next time we met, she said, “I signed up online for the Napa Valley Marathon.”

I take no credit for Natalie’s race in Napa. The closest I came to helping was giving her a book. Whether or not she followed its schedule, she never said and I never asked.

She reported on her training only once. That was to say that her long run had reached three hours, “and the distance was about 23 miles.”

The last time I saw her between the end of fall term and the Napa starting line in March, she was running mile track intervals in January snow. This told me a lot about her determination. But such drive isn’t always a plus in an event where it can conflict with the virtues of patience and restraint.

The only advice I gave her at the Napa Valley start was unsolicited: “Hold yourself back at the start, where the temptation is to go too fast.” She didn’t hold back.

I saw Natalie twice in the first half of this marathon, and both times she was among the top five women. This wasn’t a good place for a novice to be.

Later I stood near the finish with Natalie’s parents. “We saw her at about 16 miles,” said Mom. Dad added, “She still looked good.” I tried to prepare them for their daughter not looking good when she reached us.

Expecting a big slowdown from when I’d last seen her, I said, “She should be here between 3:20 and 3:30, which would be a terrific time for her first marathon.” I’d barely made this guess when Dad yelled, “There’s she is!”

She didn’t hear my shout of amazement at seeing the clock reading 3:08. Only six women, all older and more experienced, beat the freshman Natalie that day. She taught me never to underestimate the young.

Later. I surrendered on trying to install a university marathon class. Instead I started coaching a group, open to all ages, through a local running store. A 2007 team trained for the first Eugene Marathon, which started on the university campus and ended at the school’s football stadium.

Never had so many of our team’s runners been so young. Fourteen students ran there with us, and none was older than 23. We had a winner in his age-group at 19 and a woman who qualified for Boston at 20.

All but one of these kids finished the Eugene race. Lack of interest or toughness wasn’t he problem for the woman of 21 who didn’t finish. She might have cared too much and tried too hard.

Like a proud papa (or grandpa), I waited at the finish line for these runners complete this graduation exercise. My clipboard held a predicted time range for each of our runners, and Whitney was overdue.

Then I was told, “I saw one of your runners on a stretcher at the 25-mile mark.” The more names I checked off the list, the more likely the fallen runner had to be Whitney. One of her sorority-sister teammates finally confirmed it.

By then she was headed for a hospital emergency room with a suspected case of hyponatremia (low sodium). The best outcome would have been for the IV to act as a miracle drug, and for Whitney to jump off the hospital bed and say, “I’m going back to the course and walk that final mile.”

Her doctors and parents wouldn’t have allowed this, even if she’d felt up to it. Which she didn’t.

Whitney fell a mile short of finishing her marathon but didn’t fail. She ran harder than anyone on my teams ever has, and for as long as she could. If anyone failed, it was I for not coaching her quite well enough.

My hope was to honor her at our victory party the next Sunday. We would return to the marathon course as a group to run the final mile with her. Where the finish line had been, I would drape a “finisher” medal around her neck and give the same hug that all the others had received there a week earlier.

Whitney balked at joining us that day at all, feeling she had nothing to celebrate as the only incomplete marathoner at the party. Good for her for wanting to finish the right way, the only true way. A young runner who thinks this way will go far, and not just as a runner.

(Photo: Much later and still a winning runner, Natalie Provost Bak with husband Ryan.)


[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, January 7, 2019

The Watching


(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Next Steps.)

2004. When asked to move my byline to Marathon & Beyond, I quickly agreed, but then privately asked myself: Do I really belong here? Readers were justified in asking the same: How well can he speak to our interests?

Readers were right to wonder: What are his credentials, not as a writer but as a runner? They run marathons and, for some, beyond that distance.

Did I? Well, no, not lately. My life as a marathoner sputtered to a halt in 2000, after four dozen finishes spread over four decades.

I’m not ready to say that the last one has been run, but the passing years have turned a probably-soon into a maybe-someday. My life as an ultrarunner never really got started. I dropped out more often than finished those few races, all run by 1971.

Which returns us to that question: Do I have anything left to say to runners of distances now available to me only in aging logbooks? Yes, I think so.

I justify my new position in M&B by broadening the definition of “beyond.” It doesn’t have to mean only “longer than.” The word can also imply “in addition to.”

“Beyond” can include runs other than marathons and ultras, the shorter training and racing that isn’t devalued by the long. “Beyond” can include what happens after the long racing is finished, when the knowledge of and appreciation for marathoning and ultrarunning don’t end at the final finish line.

Paul Reese, the grandest old man of the roads I know, once bristled when I referred to him as an “ex-Marine.” Colonel Reese corrected me by saying firmly, “There’s no such thing as an ex-Marine.”
He explained that once you’ve had the experience, and Paul had it in three wars from the 1940s to the 1960s, it never leaves you.

Likewise there are no ex-marathoners or ex-ultrarunners. Once you join this club, you never really leave. The experience stays with you, to share with the runners who follow you on these courses.

LIVING THE AFTER-LIFE. The best of runners see the rest of us the least while they are competing at their fastest. Not until their pace slows or their racing stops do the former best truly join the rest of us.

Runners fast and fortunate enough to reach the top get to spend only a few years there. Most of them peak in their late 20s and early 30s. Then where do they go? What do they do with their next 50 or 60 years, after the cheering stops?

Many more little-noticed ex-great runners than celebrated current ones now roam the world. One recent summer I saw three past greats at the Steamboat Marathon in Colorado.

Lisa Rainsberger was there. You might remember her as Lisa Weidenbach who, three times in a row between 1984 and 1992, missed the Olympic marathon team by one place. Her serious racing years are long past, but she does little looking back with regret.

“I’m living in Colorado Springs and training marathoners there,” she said when we talked at Steamboat. “We brought 40 of them to this weekend’s race.”

Lisa pointed to her young daughter, Katie. “This is my medal,” said Lisa, who had a difficult pregnancy with her first child.

“And this is my second,” she added, pointing to her growing belly. “It’s a boy, due this fall.”

At Steamboat a bearded mountain-man stood in the finish chutes, directing traffic. Not one finisher in a hundred knew this was Benji Durden. He made the 1980 U.S. Olympic team-to-nowhere, then ran a 2:09 marathon and reached the first World Championships in 1983.

“I haven’t raced in years,” he said, “but I’m at a race almost every weekend. Last year Amie [his wife] and I handled 46 events.”

One of the runners Benji guided into a chute at Steamboat was running under an assumed name. The announcer read it without commenting on her true identity. I’ll honor her wish for anonymity by not unmasking her here.

One of America’s all-time great marathoners, she ran a 43-minute 10K this day. She seemed to be thinking: I like being out here running and don’t mind doing it slowly. I just don’t want to be singled out for attention.

The ex-stars in this story all appear to be living well in their athletic after-life. They keep running, keep working at races in various capacities – only in a quieter and less visible ways than before.

STANDING WATCH. Those who stand and watch also participate. If you’ve gone to a marathon to support the runners you knew, to wait for their faces to appear in the crowd, then you’ve been involved too. Standing and watching can stir your emotions in same ways that running does, and sometimes more.

In your own races you have at least the illusion of control. But you can’t run your friends’ miles, which is why you worry for them.

Running for yourself, you focus on the little steps right in front you and those just taken. With friends you see how far they’ve come to get to mile zero of a marathon, and you know how getting through 26.2 will change them in ways they don’t yet know.

Each year I watch former students of mine, from running classes at the University of Oregon, graduate into marathons. They took their early steps with me, then passed their final and most vital exam by continuing to run on their own.

At their marathon start I feel more nervous for them than I’d felt before all of my own marathons combined. At their finish I shed more tears for them than for all of my races.

We who stand and watch also serve. We cheer the runners who do what we once did, giving them the support that we once received.

We show the passers-by that what they do does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. No one knows them better than one who has passed this way before.

2019 Update. I needed this reminder now, after a year when my runs had become walks. That doesn’t erase all I’ve ever known about running or done in it. The sharing of experience and enthusiasm don’t stop when the running does. 

(Photo: Jan Seeley served as publisher of M&B from its conception in the mid-1990s to its sad demise in 2015.)


[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.]