(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.)
2010. I stood before a group of good kids at a tough time in their day. They were teenagers, at a Dick Beardsley running camp in Winterset, Iowa. My talk to them started late and squeezed between their hard training (a mix of track intervals and hills) and dinner. They listened politely, but I could see that what they wanted most from this program was brevity.
My comments were rushed and rough (even before a cell-phone ring, mine, interrupted the flow). Still, I welcomed the challenge of making at least one point that would stick with these kids. I’m used to that, from facing other good young crowds at tough times for them.
Every three months, year round, I greet a new group of students only slightly older than the Iowans. My University of Oregon running classes meet early, at what feels like the middle of the night to those runners.
At first they see me only as the oldest teacher in the P.E. department. I have to prove all over again each term that I have something to teach that will make getting up at this hour worthwhile. I try to win the kids over to running before they drop the course, if not the entire activity.
My first message in college classes, then, is the same one I tried to deliver at the high school camp in Iowa. It isn’t about how to train or race, or how to eat or cross-train, but about how to win.
If I hadn’t learned it early, none of my speaking and writing, teaching and coaching would have happened. My “career” as a runner would have lasted less than 90 seconds.
“You see a grandfather figure standing up here,” I told the Iowans. “But I too was 14 once – as you are or recently have been. My running started in an Iowa school, as yours did.”
I had a coach, as they did. Mine was Dean Roe. The setting and timing of my talk were perfect, though sad, because this first coach of mine had lived his final years near Winterset. I didn’t get to his funeral but honored him now.
“I hope you’re lucky enough to have someone like him in your running life,” I told these kids. “I hope to be like him in the coaching I now do.”
Coach Roe pulled me up from the infield grass where I’d flopped after dropping out of my first one-mile race as a high school freshman, and apparently out of the sport that I’d barely started. Then he said just the right things at the right time.
He didn’t label me a quitter or a loser. Instead of kicking my butt, he patted my back and said quietly, “You owe me one.”
A complete mile, that is. “I don’t care if you finish last next time,” he added. “That beats not finishing at all.”
The next week I finished my mile race, not fast and closer to last place than first. But by going the distance I’d reached the first level of winning: finishing what you start, no matter the time or place.
With a personal record now set, I could climb to the second level of winning: improving that PR. My mile time dropped by 42 seconds that first year and eventually by more than twice that much.
Time improvement, at distances short and long, lasted about a decade. This meant I was only in my mid-20s when facing the downward slope from the peak. What then?
The third and highest level of winning, which is continuing long after setting your last PR. It’s not training to go faster or farther, but running for running’s own sake. Indefinitely.
Later. As a runner I long settled at that third stage. But I now spend most of my days teaching and coaching at the first two levels of winning, helping runners finish what they start and then improve their results.
I prop up runners who are about to fall out of the sport, as I almost did at 14. I tell them how to win without having to beat anyone, as I did while improving a lot.
I get to do all this because of what Dean Roe once taught me. My learning came when the grandparents of the kids in my Iowa audience were kids themselves.
But I assured the children of today that this talk wasn’t ancient history. It was as current as two days earlier, when I’d said good-bye to another group of college runners.
Each class has a most memorable student. Usually it’s someone slow and unathletic-looking who improves enormously.
This time it was one of the fastest runners I’d ever taught, and one of the most troubled. After the group orientation that term, I invited students to talk to me alone about any questions or concerns.
Kevin waited until everyone else left before approaching me. “I want to run,” said the 18-year-old freshman, “but I can’t deal with the pressure of running against other people and being timed.”
When asked why, he told me about “my high school coach whose attitude was that second place is the first loser. Nothing I did satisfied him. This destroyed my love of running, and I want to get it back.”
He asked to run apart from the other students, without a watch. I could have said no; either run what everyone else does or drop the class.
Instead, seeing that his running was in critical condition, I let him find his own way. He ran that way, checking in with me regularly, nearly always reporting longer distances than I’d assigned the other students.
He had passed his own how-to-win test.
(Photo: Most of my last running class at the University of Oregon, spring 2018.)
[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, The Running Revolution and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]