(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 Amazon.com. 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.]