What I've Learned In Almost 50 Years of Running
Listen, you know what your favorite workout is. It's the best clue to making running work for you right now. You have a favorite loop, a preferred pace. You get into your groove, and you find yourself solving a sticky problem on the side as you run!
For me, it's doing the half marathon distance out and back course along the tree-lined Santa Rosa creek trail. Run out on the south side of the creek, and blast back with a negative split on other side of the tree-shaded creek. No worries about time, it's all about the flow, the rhythm.
We're all the captains of our own ship. Trust yourself. Get into a good rhythm. Relax and run hard. Those endorphins will flow, and you'll know just what to do. I'm not saying don't have a coach. I've had wonderful coaches and abysmal coaches. Listen to your own counsel, you'll know the difference.
Wait. I'm getting ahead of myself here.
Let's start at the begining.
How Did We Get Here?
We all started running somewhere, somehow. An invitation to run with a friend, or perhaps it was the middle school cross country team. For me, it was the search for a sport I could be good at.
I played little league baseball for two years, and got zero hits. Nickname: Clunker! The tallest kid in the sixth grade, I was arguably the worst basketball player!
Come high school, there is the call for track team tryouts. A troupe of awkward, skinny underclassmen with big feet showed up. Coach Winseck advises we'll be lining up for a mile time trial. On the starting line with a dozen other lads, I'm thinking I'll easily make the top three to earn a spot on the team. The first lap is a breeze, but it's a world of pain from there...
Running Hurts Like Heck
“Cook it! Cook it! You're doggin' it!” yells Coach Winseck as we pass the half mile. Seriously? I'm dead on my feet, get the casket ready!
Third lap, I'm in 5th or 6th place going backwards, arms heavy as lead and my legs are bumping into each other. Looking at the cinder track, is there a convenient rock or hole to accidentally “trip” over? Near delirium, I notice Coach is shooting a pistol, maybe to put me out of my misery? No, it's the gun lap! One to go, boys!
Finding a tiny pocket of optimism in my gut, I notice some of the guys in front of me have developed cement legs. In fact, the lead runner is only 20 meters up. I reel them in slowly, feeling some hope that I can place third!
With a hundred meters to go, a boy named Roy sprints by me, arms flailing. I respond on an animal level as Roy and I lift ourselves past the stragglers to share the lead.
Running is a Contact Sport
I'm edging ahead of Roy, but he runs wide to push me out to lane three in his effort to win. Coach Winseck, delighted, cheers us on from the finish line where he stands in lane five, “Cook it boys, cook it!”
I edge ahead of Roy by a whisker for the win, but not before we crash straight into Coach Winseck in lane five. Stopwatch and clipboard fly willy-nilly through the crisp spring air!
Welcome to the track team.
Motivated by winning to take part in this torturous sport, I figured I'd run no more than a year or two, earn my varsity letter. That was the spring of 1972. Yes, I'm closing in on 50 years in the sport.
Relaxation, Rhythm and the Flow
Have I learned anything from almost 50 years of running? First and foremost, you don't have to approach every run, every race like you are “Killing Snakes”! While it is important to be enthusiastic, and well-conditioned, the key element is relaxation.
As a young man, I white-knuckled my way to winning my share of races, but also crashed and burned in others from putting too much pressure on myself to win, or to run a particular time.
Tom Tellez, coach of all-time sprinting great Carl Lewis, states that Lewis was completely relaxed sprinting at maximum speed. Lewis was super focused, yet he was sprinting within the framework of rhythmical, relaxed running form.
All time distance running great Ron Clarke of Australia set world records in the 1960s over multiple distances including the prestigious 5,000 and 10,000 meters on the track. Discussing his best runs, Clarke quipped “the flow was there.” No slave to the stopwatch, Clarke excelled at tapping into his relaxed stride and coaxed astounding efforts out of himself.
Negative Split Racing
A life-long middle distance runner, I became a half marathoner at age 58. For one thing, having never run the event, it was a guaranteed PR! The distance also brought me to my current approach to racing. I'd say the best way to unlock your fitness to produce the best possible result is to run a negative split, with the second half of the race going quicker than the first.
I freely admit to running many a PR with a faster first half of the run. My best 1500 meters of 4:01 was run off a 2:06 first 800, but perhaps I'd have run even faster if I'd started a bit slower. I'm not saying to start at a crawl, but use common sense to run a realistic pace.
Running negative splits allows you to get into your best rhythm and open up your flow. You can think clearly about meting out your effort over the totality of the distance. Going out too fast, you risk getting into an anaerobic oxygen debt, putting you in a position of reacting to a bad situation. Your strategy becomes damage control!
Bottom line, the negative split race is a lot more fun. It allows you to increase your pace as you smell the finish line. Sure, you are redlining your engine if you do it right, working hard, but your fitness and intent propel you to a great effort. It's a heck of a lot more fun that running the first half too fast, and trying to hang on for dear life in an excruciating death-march to stumble across the line!
Staying Healthy / Listen to Your Body
I'm no expert on training and I'm certainly no coach, but I do know that rest is a huge element in enjoying running, let alone in keeping injury free.
If you are really tired, if something really hurts, take a day off. Are you in a big mileage build? Take your time increasing the weekly distance of your runs.
Many marathon and half marathon training programs advise you to periodically back off as you build milage. For example, when you get your weekly miles to 50 per week for a couple weeks, follow up with a 40 mile week to allow your body to heal and consolidate gains, then continue the build.
Patience With Injuries
In recent years I struggled with an inflamed right Achilles tendon. I was dying to train for the half marathon, build mileage and run a PR. I did all of these things, then took a month off to heal. I did another half marathon build, got another PR, but that stupid Achilles was worse than ever!
So I took an entire 3 months off with no running. Amby Burfoot cites this advice in his Run Forever book. Basically, most injuries will heal themselves if you take enough time off. I had to do this, take sufficient time off for a persistent injury to heal.
It's also normal to occasionally take a week (or three!) off from running. Even Olympic champions do this. You risk getting stale and losing interest in running if you don't schedule some time off.
Shake up the Routine
For decades, I was a 5k/10k guy after running the mile/1500 in college. Working hard to build my cartooning business, I didn't have much time to train. I'd run 20 – 25 miles per week, alternating hard days with easy days. My longest runs topped out at six miles.
The heart of my workouts were hard 5 – 6 mile runs, basically get out the door and throw it down as fast as you can. Living in Oakland, California, I alternated running in the Oakland hills with the wonderful flat/fast urban 5k loop around Lake Merritt.
I had a burst of enthusiasm as I crested 50, winning my age group in runs in Portland, Oregon where my family relocated for a couple years.
Then the wife and I went mildly bonkers and moved again to the the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. The city is situated at 5000 feet in altitude and is surrounded by mountains. My regiment of short, fast runs just stopped being fun, I was getting injured easily and drifted away from running.
You're Never Too Old for a Mentor
This all changed when I met Richard Stoutner, American ex-patriot coach living in Oaxaca. Richard coaches runners, bikers and triathletes. He himself is an accomplished ultra-runner (and triathlete). He's even run the legendary Tarahumara ultra race, immortalized in the Born to Run book by Christopher MacDougall, placing 23rd out of some 700 athletes!
Practically neighbors in Oaxaca, I met Richard through mutual friends and we began running together once a week. Here's an affable, good humored fellow who exudes a calm confidence. Thought I, let's get running!
His easy day became my long run, my crucible of pain doing 12 – 13 mile runs from 5000 to 6000 feet and back on wooded mountain ridges. I hadn't had this much fun in years! I can never thank Mr. Stoutner enough.
The Journey from Miler to Half Marathoner
To say it's exhilarating to run the mountains above the Oaxaca, the cultural jewel of southern Mexico, is a wild understatement. Weaving through the forests on the ridge line with vast valleys beckoning on either side, it's also important to keep an eye out for coral snakes, whose venom makes rattlesnakes look like junior varsity!
My favorite run was the day that Richard, shorter than I, blasted a downhill section of trail at a goodly pace. Huffing & puffing, doing my best to keep up, I failed to notice a low-hanging branch that Richard has easily ducked under. SMACK!
Next thing I know, he's standing over my, asking me if I would be able to get up and run? (as I might be too heavy for him to carry me 10k back to town.) Examining my bloodied face, he opined, “Tell your wife you were running alone today, I don't want to get in trouble.” No prob, all in a day's run!
Straddling the decade from 50 to 60, I didn't see that running could be completely new, and open up my heart and my life like this! My headset was that old minor injuries surely would rule out ever competing in a half marathon. I wouldn't have thought it likely I'd ever go for a 10-mile run again. Now I can hardly imaging a week without at least one run of 10 – 15 miles!
What Am I Getting At?
If I've learned anything it's that the moral of the story is never give up. No matter who you are, no matter how you feel, there is always another chapter, another great adventure waiting out there.
For those willing to open their hearts and minds, anything is possible.
Steve Lafler is a graphic novelist, writer, cheap red wine enthusiast, and lifelong runner.