Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Kids

(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.)

2009. I spend more time among the young than almost anyone my age whose own kids are grown and whose grandchildren live far away. Four mornings a week I’m on a college campus, watching the student parade.

First impressions: They’re surgically attached to their talk/text phones and music players. Only the hopelessly unhip don’t sport body art. Smoking rates are rising. So is weight.

My wife rents housing to college-age kids. Barbara tells horror stories of evictions for alcohol parties for the underaged, which led to near-riots, and for dealing drugs from her properties.

If I mistook these extreme examples for the norm, I’d despair for this generation’s future. I’d view today’s kids as the old traditionally do the young: as fatter, lazier and more spoiled than we were at their age. I’d think they wouldn’t want to run at all, let alone train for marathons.

Fortunately I’m on campus precisely because kids of traditional college age, 18 to 22, still run. Running classes at this school are fully subscribed, with four teachers covering as many as five of these P.E. electives per term.

These kids could be my grandchildren, yet they talk as freely with me as I do them. I learn that they run for the same reasons I did when young. They thrive when given the same inspiration and instruction that my “grandpas” gave. Old or young, we speak the same running language. 

Many of these students opt for off-campus marathon training, sometimes with my marathon team. This gives me a fifth morning each week to spend among the young. On one team fully one-third of our runners preparing for the Eugene Marathon were college students. They weren’t the athletes that I was at their age; they were far beyond the young me. (A four-mile cross-country race was still “long” for me at 20.)

Their future, as runners and in greater pursuits, looks bright. So does the sport’s if we older folks can encourage instead of disparage kids like those whose stories I’ll share here.

A freshman I’ll simply identify as David was a small-town boy, living for the first time away from home. He acted a little lost here, in what passes in Oregon for a big city. I saw some of myself in him, since I’d made a similar move to Iowa’s capital almost a half-century earlier.

David had more talent for running than he knew. It took him places where he hadn’t planned to go when he first arrived at college and signed up for a running class. He always led the training runs.

I took extra care explaining the routes to him, once telling him, “Don’t cross the river and stay on the bike path, avoiding the street.” He returned after everyone else had finished. He’d crossed the river and hit the streets.

David’s runs led to a half-marathon, where he ran 1:21. When I shouted my excitement over that time, he asked innocently, “Is that good?” It was good enough to put him on course for Boston qualifying, and he did the long training runs needed to bring a 3:10 within reach. (Not that the value of Boston and that time had hit home with him yet.)

Then came a pre-dawn email from him on Eugene Marathon morning. “I totally forgot to get my race packet at the expo,” he wrote. In his few smaller races he’d always signed in just minutes before the start. The marathon, he finally realized, allowed no race-day pickup.

“Can I still run the race and get counted?” he asked. As a race-board member I could have intervened for David, but didn’t. He needed to enter a plea himself, and then probably take his penalty for not reading the rules. This would have been a hard but memorable lesson in following directions.

We didn’t meet before the start, so I guessed that he’d been turned down and had gone home. Later, while standing at the nine-mile mark, I saw the first of the bright-green shirts of our runners. I could tell from a distance, by running form, that it was David.

Speeding past me, he pointed to his race number, then raised a thumb. His lost-boy innocence had charmed someone into forgiving his inattention.

Because young runners also can be impatient and impulsive, David started fast, cramped later and missed his Boston standard by 10 minutes. But this imperfect start taught him a lot about finding his way to and through marathons. His next one will go much better.

Unlike David, another student knew exactly where she was going when she first came to my class. Emily Harper, at 19, is uncommonly focused for one so young. She already knows her calling in life, to follow her father into medicine.

When I met Emily in January, she was armed with a marathon training program and a GPS watch to keep precise counts of distances and paces. She accepted my invitation to join our marathon team for some runs, but still stuck closer to her own schedule than mine.

With two long runs to go she was on pace to break 3:30. Then a non-running injury struck. Another 19-year-old might have panicked, either trying to train through pain or abandoning this goal.

Not Emily. She tweaked her plan. In place of her scheduled 19 miles on the roads, she “ran” three hours in the pool. Instead of a straight 21 miles, which she guessed would stress her sore foot too much, she ran back-to-backs – 11 miles one day and 10 the next.

The best predictor of marathon pace for my groups is a runner’s average for the longest training run. On Emily’s longest run, she’d hit 8:21s – which would have forecast a 3:39 marathon. But that run had come seven weeks before the marathon and reached only 17 miles. When she asked how fast she should start, I told her “8:30 tops.”

She knew exactly what that meant: not enough to break 3:40 and qualify for Boston. “That slow?” she said with a pained look. “Okay, no faster than 8:20s,” I told her.

Without a hint from me to join the Clif Bar 3:40 pace group, she did it. In the final miles she moved ahead of this pace leader. And she hit negative splits, averaged 8:18s and finished in 3:37 to earn her Boston trip.

Runners can grow old while looking for the perfect marathon, and sometimes never finding it. Emily got hers right the first time.

Two final stories: The first concerns a marathon veteran, the other a newbie.

For Austin, at the time my youngest runner ever at 18, this already was his third marathon. It resulted in both his worst time and his best experience as he slowed by a minute a mile to pace an uncle. At the finish, Austin pointed to the older man and boasted, “He PRed by 17 minutes.”

When Nicole started our program, she announced that “my longest run has been two or three miles. I hope I can keep up with your distances.” She shook her head in disbelief each time the length increased.

Nicole did just fine in the marathon. Afterward she brought her mother back to the finish area to meet me. Mom said, “Thanks for taking care of my little girl.” I wish I’d thought to respond: Thanks to your girl for showing me again what these kids today can do.

Later. Emily Harper is now doctor. She still holds our team’s marathon record for under-20s, and in recent years has qualified repeatedly for Boston.  In 2018, an atrocious weather year when one-third of the field either didn’t show up or dropped out, Emily ran her fastest time to date.

(Photo: Students, now long graduated, warmed up near the Bowerman Building, now gone as well.)

[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, Personal Records, Run Gently Run Long, 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.]

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Homework

(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.)

2009. 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.

Later. Many years further along, I continue coaching and volunteering in Eugene. Not coincidentally, I write less now and travel to speak almost never.

(Photo: Richard Maher, here with his wife Jill, asked the right question at the right time. “Can you help?”)

[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, Personal Records, Run Gently Run Long, 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.]

Thursday, August 15, 2019

The No-Show

(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.)

2009. It’s never too late to have a new experience. I had one in my first post-prostate cancer marathon, and it taught me that even when this experience starts badly, it can end well.

In more than four decades of running marathons (and distances beyond) I had experienced almost everything possible. I’d gone much faster than expected and also far slower, I’d run dramatically negative splits and equally drastic positives (an odd term for a decidedly negative experience), and I’d finished without proper training and had dropped out after training properly.

I had been injured while training and abandoned the program long before its end, and had finished after the early miles magically healed an injury. I had walked unavoidably and had taken walk breaks intentionally. I had dropped out of a few marathons and, to my eternal regret, most of my ultras.

But at least in all those cases I had shown up at the starting line. “Ninety percent of winning,” or 95 or 98 percent, depending on whose quote you cite, “is showing up.” My experience is that if you get that far, you’re almost certain to push on to the finish.

I had never pulled out of a marathon right before its start, so there was no reason to think that would happen this time. Another recent “marathon” had gone smoothly, so I’d expected same at Napa Valley 2009.

This race was to be my graduation celebration from a “marathon” of daily radiation treatments for prostate cancer. They’d stretched from Halloween to the first workday of the new year. In January we (and I say “we” because any cancer involves more than the individual) still didn’t know how well this therapy had worked.

The odds were favorable, according to my radiologist. “Nationally the success rate with this type of treatment for your stage of the disease is close to 90 percent,” he said. “My numbers are even higher.”

While weighing the treatment options, I talked with Elaine Reese. Her late husband Paul had chosen radiation and lived actively and cancer-free for nearly two more decades.

“It went well for him,” said Elaine. “He never missed a run during those daily sessions.”

Paul’s story convinced me to choose radiation, which had improved vastly since Paul’s diagnosis in 1988. Running each of my 45 treatment days was one of several goals (or at least my hopes).

The others were: no medical appointment unkept, no coaching session unattended, no writing deadline unmet, no diary page unfilled. I checked off every goal.

This wasn’t heroic, or foolish. If pushing on had been a struggle, I would have cut back immediately. Life went on as before because it could. The radiation was minimally invasive to both body and normal routines.

My running during treatment wasn’t the same as before. It was better. Marathon training passed without a hitch (a rarity at my age), and it included my longest day ever (in time, not distance).

I reserved number 45 to wear on race day. This was nod to the count of treatments that had all gone so smoothly.

I looked forward to running for the first time with (well behind, anyway) the marathon training team that I coached. Before, I’d always stood and watched these runners from first to last. Now I would be the last, and hoped without asking that many of them would stick around after their finish to watch mine.

Only during the taper did these plans unravel. For many runners this is the worst part of the program.

It’s too late to gain more from training, but not too late to blow it all with an ill-timed medical mishap. Every little symptom expands in the mind to threaten your marathon.

The scratchiness in your throat is surely strep. The ache in your ankle must be a stress fracture.

I’ve had every possible symptom before marathons. Some were imaginary, all were exaggerated in the worried mind.

I’d always started a marathon with something wrong, but never had it kept me from starting. The healing power of a starter’s gun had always amazed me.

An injury struck two weeks before that 2009 Napa Valley Marathon, right on schedule during the taper. I made a dumb mistake by lifting too much (ironically it was the training team’s loaded drink cooler), with bad form (too much arms, not enough legs) and without help (offered but waved off). My lower back instantly let me know the errors of my ways.  

The pain was real. But I assumed that it wasn’t as serious as it seemed to my pre-marathon mind. It was.

Two days before Napa Valley, after hurting every step in a run just one-tenth the race distance, I made a hard decision: Don’t risk it. This is no way to start a marathon, let alone try to finish one.

George Sheehan was my favorite quote-meister (as well my ghost-doctor who ordered me to check early and often for signs of prostate cancer, which he didn’t do soon enough). George wrote, “Winning is never having to say I quit.”

By quitting this marathon before it started, I lost my race – but gained something else by doing so. My lesson from Napa was that no injury – or dropout – is all bad. This new experience of late withdrawal let me watch the finish of all 18 runners I had coached that winter and had talked into trying Napa Valley.

There would be another marathon for me, but never a second chance to see each of these teammates finish this one. Missing them there would have been a bigger loss than my quitting before the race started.

Later. Nowhere was it recorded in Napa Valley’s results from 2009 that I actually did some running that race day. I still pinned on a race number and lined up at the back, seeing how far my injury would let me go.

A marathon was out of the question that day, but the excitement of the event let me go half the distance before catching a ride to see my fastest teammate finish. Barely made it in time.

(Photo: Running in the rain through the Napa Valley.)

[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, Run Gently Run Long, 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.]