Sunday, March 31, 2019

The Team

(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 Miles to Go.)

2005. It’s instructive what you can hear while running when you aren’t too busy talking and don’t have recorded music or news talk plugged into your ears. Here’s what I heard one morning:

Two runners came up from behind. One did most of the talking, his volume growing as the gap between us shrunk. The first words I caught were “... new marathon training program.” Then “... only run long every other week.” And louder, “They only go over 20 miles once, peaking at 21.”

They passed me with a small wave from one and a nod from the other. They didn’t know me, or that I’d overheard them. The gap between us grew again. The last words I heard were, “... not enough training.”

Says who? Themselves, from their marathon experiences? Another writer whose schedules they’ve read? They weren’t reading my writing. And their experience didn’t match mine.

They were talking down a training program being adopted for the first time locally. That was my schedule, written for the marathon team that I was coaching. The runners whose critique I heard were right in their description. But they were wrong, I have to think, in their conclusion.

Yes, the long runs would come every other weekend, going up by two-mile steps from 11. (A pre-training program built to 10 miles, testing if runners could or wanted to continue.) Yes, the distance would peak at 21 miles, the only training run above 20. And yes, these runs would be long enough for most runners. (The most common cause of breakdowns in training that I’ve seen is too many too-long runs with too little recovery between.)

These ideas weren’t wild guesses at what might work in marathon training. I didn’t make any of this up lately just to sell books to thousands of shortcut-seekers. This type of training has a long history, starting with my own entry into marathoning in 1967.

Ten years later, readers first saw an early version of this program.  The latest incarnations of the schedule appear in the book Marathon Training, now into a second edition.

I hear from very few of the book’s readers, which isn’t a bad sign. You know how we runners are: We don’t quietly swallow our disappointments. Anyone who felt led far astray by Marathon Training would have let me know quickly and vociferously, yet these complaints are rare.

An earlier column in Marathon & Beyond told how my approach came about. It silently answered the early-morning talkers who’d concluded, “not enough.” A better rebuttal would come in June 2005 at Newport, Oregon, when my first marathon team reached its graduation day.

Later. Writing training schedules in books is the easy part. They go to an unseen audience, to take or leave, and then I walk away. I rarely hear who took or left this advice. Acting as a coach for months of Sundays, getting to know the runners as individuals, is harder than writing a schedule – and immensely more satisfying. Also more nerve-wracking.

A coaching truism: Credit all goes to that athlete when everything goes right. Blame goes to the coach when something bad happens. I promised myself, when the direct coaching began in January 2005, to give the credit and take the blame. My first and biggest responsibility was more medical than technical: to keep these runners healthy enough to get where they wanted to go. Not all did.

You can’t judge the worth of a training program by counting only the marathoners who finished the race. You must account too for any training casualties. During this training cycle I lost three runners to injury.

I take the blame for not spotting their trouble early enough to help them get past it. Few of the remaining 16 runners eased through the training trouble-free. I listened to all the physical complaints, from head (colds) to foot (plantar fascia). I-T band pain became the injury of the season.

Everyone survived these scares, and the team of 16 reached Newport intact on marathon weekend. But their troubles, real or imagined, weren’t over yet. By race eve pre-marathon neuroses had kicked in, with almost everyone now suffering from some race-threatening malady. Worry exaggerates the severity, and their worries multiplied by 16 for me.

I’m not a doctor but played one while coaching the marathon team. The irony here was that the group included an emergency-room physician, Tod Hayes. The Sunday of our final training run I’d said to Tod as he was leaving, “Stay away from sick people this week.” He had laughed at this absurdity.

That Friday night I saw Tod as we checked into our hotel. His voice sounded raspy. “I caught a cold this week,” he noted with a resigned shake of his head. I asked him questions, then gave advice. Only later did I see what I’d done: play doctor to a real doctor. I felt responsible for his health too.

(Photo: Our first team shares a group huddle moments before the 2005 Newport Marathon start.)

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, 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.]

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Coaches

(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 Miles to Go.)

2005. Dean Roe coached all three sports at my small-town Iowa school. By 1958 a football team of his had won a state title and a basketball team had reached the state tournament. He knew how to develop winners. I wanted to be one, but was too timid to succeed in football and too short for basketball.

Track was my last chance, and the best one was in the longest race we could run then – the mile. Body-size didn’t matter here, only heart-size. I could win by wanting it more than anyone else. Or so I thought.

On my first official day as a runner I tried too hard and beat no one but myself. I started at a dead sprint, which couldn’t last much more than one lap, and didn’t. The pack spit me out the back and off the track, where I now sat feeling sorry for myself after failing at another sport.

Coach Roe wasn’t a running expert, but he was an authority on the delicate psyches of adolescents. He knew when to kick a butt and when to pat a back.

He might have kicked me while I was down by quoting the slogan from his locker-room: “Quitters never win.” Instead he gave me a consoling pull to my feet and told me to try again next week and that “you’ll do okay if you pace yourself better.”

Next time I started last and didn’t do much passing, but I finished. That first year I improved enough to qualify for the state meet – and in later years to place at state, then to win there and finally to set a meet record.

My winning against other runners stopped after high school, but the improvement of times and distances lasted into the 1970s. Running didn’t stop there. It continues today, running on without needing any PR payoffs. 

Every year, every mile was and is a gift from Dean Roe. I once planned to thank him by imitating him, first by studying in college to be a coach of young runners. An early and long detour into running writing took me off the original path for more than 40 years.

Then, when given the chance to teach running classes to University of Oregon students a few years ago, I balked at first. “What if it took too much time away from the writing?” I said to my wife. Nonsense, Barbara told me. “Think of all the new story material this will give you.”

That has been the least of what these young runners have given me. If forced to choose now between the writing and the teaching, I would teach.

My best possible model for practicing this profession was my first coach. As “Coach Joe” I try to repay Coach Roe by repeating his lessons on winning running, from start to who-knows-where.

FIRST CLASS. Reading the book and seeing the movie Seabiscuit reminded me of Dean Roe. I didn’t connect my first coach with the racehorse but with his trainer, Tom Smith. He spoke one of the best lines I’ve ever heard about coaching:

“A horse doesn’t care how much you know until it knows how much you care.” Two-legged runners feel the same way.

Mr. Roe wasn’t technically savvy in running. But, oh, how he cared about his athletes. The young can sense this without being told.  I think of Tom Smith’s line, and my first coach’s application of it, while greeting a new class the first day of each term.

These students don’t know me, or I them. They see only a short guy, old enough to be their dad or grandpa, standing before them. I see faces that silently challenge me to make waking up at this early hour worth their while.

I say nothing about my credits as a writer. All I tell of my years as a runner is, “I won’t ask you to run anything here that I wouldn’t do myself, and haven’t done a thousand times. This program will work if you give it a chance.”

Some don’t. They either don’t like what they hear that day and bail out before the first run, or they let that one discourage them from trying another. I wish they had withheld judgment until they’d seen that the teacher cared and heard what he knew.

Withholding judgment goes both ways. Looking over the 30 to 40 strangers at the start, I try not to guess which ones will still be with me at the end, or how far they will have come in those 10 weeks.

Every class brings its surprises. A memorable young man stood out for his size, and a woman for her talent.

A guy named Matt wore his weight proudly enough to quote it to the pound – 247. He looked like a linebacker escaped from the football team, and I might have judged him strong-but-slow.

Wrong. Matt ran his 5K that term in 19 minutes. I’ve never seen anyone so big go so fast.

A woman named Kim told on her first-day questionnaire of having no running experience. We wondered together if she could handle this 5K training class. She broke 20 minutes in her first-ever race.

“Is that good?” she asked. It showed enough promise for Kim, a freshman, to be recruited for the University of Oregon cross-country team.

A student can do as much teaching, of the teacher, as learning. My students have taught me never to prejudge who will catch fire as a runner, or how hot and long she or he might burn.

Later. While writing this piece, I had the great fortune to see Dean Roe for the first time in more than 30 years. We greeted each other with a hug, which coach and athlete (and men in general) didn’t do long ago.

Our talk moved quickly to his past athletes. I wasn’t the only one to receive Coach Roe’s gifts.

Norm Johnston almost carried on to make the 1968 Olympic team, missing by just three places in the decathlon. Rex Harvey rose to national class as a decathlete in the 1970s.

The truest measure of a coach’s success isn’t what athletes do while they’re with him, but what they take with them when they leave his team.

By that standard Dean Roe has sent hundreds of winners into the world. I hope to send a few.

My last day of each class is always bittersweet. I’ve gotten to know these runners and won’t see them again as a group.

“I won’t forget you,” I tell them. “Contact me if you have any questions about running.”

Few ever do, and that’s a good sign. Educated and experienced runners don’t need me anymore.

Students don’t even ask much of me when we’re together. I never run with them, talking as only running-mates do.

By going off without me, they see that the class is about their running and not mine. I’m there to plan, advise and cheer, but not to be anywhere near the center of their attention.

I try to teach students not to need me for long. Most of each run, and the runs outside of class, and the future running I hope they’ll do, must come without a teacher watching.

(Photo: Coach Dean Roe led me to follow in his footsteps, 40 years later.)

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, 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, March 18, 2019

The Tributes

(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 Miles to Go.)

2005. The list of who has most influenced my running the most runs long. It carries the names of coaches I trained with daily and some I’ve never met. I list my running heroes, teammates and competitors, parents and uncles.

But too little public credit has gone to the person who might have helped the most. That’s the one who shares the most DNA with me, my older brother Mike.

He was two years ahead of me in age, and miles further advanced as a young athlete. He played quarterback in football, point-guard in basketball, and ran hurdles and sprints in track.

Then a football knee injury struck. It crippled him athletically, then would keep him from staying active enough after that.

He would grow heavy. He would work too hard and relax too little. He would pick up a smoking habit. He would look old before his time.

My brother would become the type of person we runners too easily laugh at and look down upon. But before you judge him too quickly and harshly, get to know him a little better. You’ll see how much he could help runners without being one himself.

For all the writing that Mike did in his job with a high school athletic organization, he almost never mentioned himself (unlike his brother, who wears out the “I” on his keyboard). One of the very few pieces that told his own story was a biographical sketch requested by his employer.

He wrote this as if talking about someone else. Such as, “In grade school Mike used crayons and dice for ‘play’ track meets complete with scoring.”

From the next bedroom I would hear him announcing these nightly races: “Here comes Orange on the outside... Black is dropping back.” He recorded all the results.

Before his knee blew out in his junior year of high school, Mike was a better athlete than he ever would let on later. Afterward he hobbled along gamely on 1½ legs.

He mainly handed off the football to others. He even did this for his smaller brother in a lopsided game by calling my number twice without success, then a third time while he pushed me across the goal line.

This was Mike. He made a career of pushing others to greater glory while taking no credit himself.

An early example: He found a term paper of mine that I’d written for a high school class and sent it to Omaha’s newspaper, which I wouldn’t have thought to do myself. This became my first full-length article to see print, and created an appetite to write more.

Hard as it is to say now, my big brother also showed me how I did not want to live: physically inactive, working nights and sleeping days, working through his weekends and vacations, going wifeless and childless.

That would seem a sad life if you didn’t know the rest of his story. Mike was a rare and lucky man whose work and hobby were the same.

He found his true course early and stayed on it to the end. He pushed me in that same direction while letting me leave some of his baggage behind.

Later. The Drake Relays is Iowa’s annual Super Bowl of track and field, selling out the stadium in Des Moines each April. For the Hendersons it’s a holiday weekend as anticipated as Christmas.

The meet turned 97 years old in 2005. For more than three-quarters of those years, two generations of our family has watched and worked there. None of us served longer than Mike, and perhaps no one at all ever loved this event more or lived it more completely.
Few athletes and fans at the 2005 Drake Relays would have known his name. But most of the supporting cast – the officials, coaches and especially the reporters – knew all that he did for them and valued him for it.
By title, Mike was the Drake Relays statistician. He was much more than that: a living history book and human computer for this meet and this sport.
Starting in the mid-1960s, he shared the Relays’ statistical load with our late father Jim. Mike later worked with any sport that needed him: at Drake, the girls and boys high school championships, even arena football. But track and field always came first.
This was his family’s sport before he was born. An uncle, Charles Henderson, won a Drake Relays title for Iowa State in the early 1930s. I ran there, brother-in-law Elliott Evans won there, and our cousin Bruce Henderson coached winning teams there.
Mike not only loved the Drake Relays; he lived for and with this meet. From just after the state high school basketball tournaments in March through the high school track championships in late May, he camped out in Drake Field House or the stadium press box. He never sought praise for this work, and in fact acted embarrassed when told how well he did it.
One of his last tasks was to gather information for the Iowa Hall of Pride. His favorite part of the newly opened shrine to the sports achievements of Iowans, the track and field and cross-country wing, now bears his name. The plaque reads:

Mike Henderson (1941-2004) was Iowa track and field and cross-country’s best friend. Mike never ran in a state meet or the Drake Relays, but his many contributions made hundreds of these meets run smoothly for generations of athletes and coaches, officials and journalists. While working as information director at the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union for almost 32 years, his service spread to the Boys Athletic Association, Drake University and wherever else his talent and devotion were needed. Mike’s family and friends ask you, while visiting these exhibits, to relive the rich history of the sports that were his first love.

Mike was loved in return, more than even his family knew. Only when we sat down in Drake Stadium for the 2005 Relays did we learn that a high school hurdles race had been named for him.

We hadn’t been warned that a message from his friends in the press box would appear on the scoreboard during the qualifying rounds and final of that race. It read, “God bless you, Mike. We miss you.”

(Photo: Emily, Anne, Aunt Marion and cousin Dave Henderson gather with me as Mike appears in video at the Iowa Hall of Pride area that honors him.)

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, 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.]