Dr. Matt is listed on the USATF Coaches Registry

Matt and Kathy K with age group wins (3)

 

Dr. Matt is now listed on the USA Track & Field Coaches Registry and SafeSport List under the New Mexico association.

What does that mean? Per USATF, Dr. Matt has “met all requirements of the registered coach program which includes an extensive background screen and completion of USOC SafeSport course.

“The USATF Registered Coaches Program was conceived to establish a set of standards for all coaches affiliated with USA Track & Field. The program involves a four-pronged process, which results in a published list of coaches who have demonstrated the ethics, honesty and trustworthiness necessary for endorsement by the national governing body. The centerpiece of the process is a comprehensive Safe Sport Handbook which focuses on only the highest ethical and honorable standards. Registered Coaches also carry with them the rights and privileges available only to those within the registry. These benefits may include:

  • Discounts for premier seminars and coaching education programs
  • Registered Coach credential at USA National Championships
  • Selection to international team staffs
  • Selection for Coaching Enhancement Grants
  • Involvement in USATF High Performance Programs
  • Compensation from USATF or USOC athlete support programs “

“The Registered Coaches application process includes: (1) a current  USATF membership, (2) a background screen, (3) completion of USOC SafeSport course, (4) agreement with the policies in the Safe Sport Handbook and (5) listing of your coaching affiliation.”

 

USATF Registered Coaches Program

 

Interested in being coached by Dr. Matt? Click here for more information.

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part IV – The Colonel

Where's Waldo? The only picture of me running in an EKU uniform. Photo credit: EKU Milestone

 

 

In  Part III of my story, I related how I had survived being lapped in the mile as a high school freshman and discovered I had some ability as a road racer, going under 40 minutes for 10K and even finishing as the first man on the cross country team in one road race. Today’s story continues with my audacious plan to take my minimal talent on to college. [See Part I and Part II]

 

Duck Dreams

After the hoop dreams had faded and turned into track dreams, I set my sights on running for the University of Oregon. The Oregon Ducks were to distance running what the Kentucky Wildcats were to college basketball, and then some. Record setting legends like Steve Prefontaine and Alberto Salazar had run for UO, they had multiple national championships and renowned coaches in Bill Bowerman (a founder of Nike) and his successor Bill Dellinger. Eugene is known as “Track Town, USA”; what aspiring young runner wouldn’t want to be there?

 

By the end of my high school junior year I knew going to Oregon was a pipedream. I was improving, but not to anything near scholarship – or even walk-on – level for a team focused on producing individual and team national championships. The reality was my parents couldn’t afford out-of-state tuition anyway, and had made it clear they weren’t going to put up with such shenanigans as my going to the other end of the country “just to run track”. As mentioned previously, they grew up during the depression which tended to make people practical and frugal. Fortunately, tuition was fairly inexpensive for in-state students in Kentucky, so I faced reality (sort of) and began looking at the local programs.

 

I decided that Western Kentucky was a good alternative that would allow me to be on what was at that time a nationally recognized team and still pay in-state tuition. Western had a relatively recent (1974) national cross country champion in Nick Rose, and boasted of several other star runners, so it seemed like we had our own version of Oregon’s team only a 90 minute drive from home. In fact, in the 1974 NCAA championship meet Western had finished second to Oregon. I sent in my paperwork and received my acceptance letter prior to my senior year.

 

Later that fall, I opened the newspaper to check the results of the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC) Cross Country championship meet. Western had put all of their scoring runners across the line before any of the other team’s runners finished. Those results were sobering, and I realized that if I was to have any chance at all of working my way up to a varsity spot, it was time to be practical and find another team.

 

Meanwhile, Back on Earth

I looked at other options within the state, but unfortunately in the pre-internet days information was limited to whatever handouts and course catalogs the guidance counselor had in her office. There were eight state universities, and all but two of them competed in NCAA Division I. I had taken summer courses at Kentucky State, a DII school only about 10 miles from home, and had run my 800 meter personal best on their track. But I knew it was a sprint oriented team that had difficulty fielding a full team for cross country, so distance coaching was unlikely to be very good. I could have run on the varsity by default, but I doubted I would live up to my potential there. Besides, with my mother working near the campus, my practical parents would have wanted me to live at home and let her drop me off. After doing well in those summer classes at KSU, it felt odd even going back to high school for my senior year, so I was more than ready to be out on my own. With my father working in Louisville, I had the same fear that they would insist I stay at home and commute to campus with him. Around that time another of the DI schools dropped their track program, further narrowing my options. I wanted the full experience of running cross country and track.

 

The other DII team was Northern Kentucky, but I’m not sure I even knew it existed. In any case, they had a cross country team but not a track team. I briefly considered the small private colleges that competed in NAIA, but for most the tuition was going to be much higher than the state schools. So while that level of competition would have been more in line with my abilities, I thought it would be too difficult financially. Thanks to my high school coach, I did receive a nice letter from the coach at a small college in Ohio inviting me to come there and join the team, but again the tuition would have been more than my family and summer jobs could support. I also still had that “Oregon” mentality to some extent, and felt like I needed to take as shot at making the team at a larger school.

 

I narrowed my choices and visited the coaches at Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky. When each asked about my best 2 mile time I sheepishly said “around 12 minutes, but I was sick this year”, to which each coach gave me a raised eyebrow ‘what are you thinking, kid?’ kind of look. As you may recall from my last post, that’s about 2 minutes shy of respectable for a potential walk-on. I quickly stated with more confidence “but I’ve run a sub-40 10,000 meters and I’m improving at those longer distances pretty quickly”. (Real track men and women say “ten thousand meters” rather than “ten K”, so surely that let them know I was serious.) I meant to tell them about my high “invitational” finishes in the Tobacco Run, too, but I got nervous and forgot at each visit. I don’t think it would have made much difference in their assessment of my talent.

 

The running form from high school. Eventually I learned to stop bouncing up and down, and to keep my head level. Not sure what I was looking at up there.
The running form from high school. Eventually I learned to stop bouncing up and down, and to keep my head level. Not sure what I was looking at up there.

 

The Kentucky coach gave me the impression that I could walk on to the team, but he was pretty indifferent about my doing so. My brother had walked on to that team a couple of years before, and left after a few weeks due to the lack of attention paid to the young walk-ons. I had heard similar stories from others, but I thought I should be objective and check it out for myself. Part of me just thought it would be cool to have that KENTUCKY across my chest, even if it wasn’t on a basketball jersey, but in the end I knew it wasn’t right for me. Besides, I already had two siblings at UK, and I was ready to go my own direction.

 

A Colonel is Born

At Eastern, the coach was more encouraging and let me know I could walk on. His policy was that as long as a walk-on worked hard and improved he wouldn’t cut him. That, coupled with the fact that Eastern had finished a couple of places down in the OVC cross country meet, made me think this just might be a good fit. A good but not championship level team just might allow me to make the varsity eventually. My mother had come along with me and we spoke to an academic advisor after meeting with the coach. The advisor reassured her that “jocks” do indeed have to study to graduate. Because of course, with my exceptional athletic talent I was sure to have received special treatment otherwise.

 

I sent in my application and became an EKU Colonel. I asked my high school coach to send a letter to the coach explaining what a hard worker I was and that I had potential at the longer distances. I wanted to ensure he didn’t change his mind when I showed up at the first practice. It turned out not to be a major concern. During my time at EKU I saw perhaps a half dozen or fewer runners cut from the team, mostly guys that weren’t showing up for practice consistently. In reality, cutting athletes from the team was rare because it wasn’t usually necessary. Many of the walk-ons who showed up to the first practice each fall would quit by the end of the second or third week, unable to handle the stress of balancing school with two hour workouts. They might have enjoyed running in high school, but they weren’t enjoying it at the college level. The first few weeks our runs were like a war of attrition; the first workout there would be about 30 – 35 runners in a bunch heading down the sidewalk, and each day there would be fewer until we were down to 15 or 20. The new freshmen either took on an air of false bravado or the look of a deer in the headlights. I did the latter, while attempting the former.

 

The summer before my first year at EKU I didn’t train nearly as much as I had during the previous summers. I had the notion that the college coaches would know what to do to get me in shape, so I should wait and let them fully train me when I got there. I also needed the mental and physical break after over-doing things for last 3 years. I logged 30 – 40 miles per week, less than half the volume I had put in before my senior year. I didn’t repeat the mistake of running three 100 mile weeks and a 24 mile run right before the season, but I should have put in more volume than I did that summer.

 

The EKU Colonel, poor guy has been retired. Drawn by cartoonist Hugh Haynie.
The EKU Colonel, poor guy has been retired. Drawn by cartoonist Hugh Haynie. TM Eastern Kentucky University

 

 

The Freshman

Little did I know after making my decision to attend EKU that Western had already left the OVC and the Eastern coach was building us into the new power in the conference. The reality hit that I, A 12-minute plus 2-miler, had just walked on to what was soon to be a NCAA Division I conference championship caliber team. I calmed myself with reminders that I had dropped 8 1/2 minutes off my 10K personal best over the course of just a few months, and I was still improving. I decided it was best to avoid any discussions of personal best times with my team mates, lest they discover there was an imposter in their midst. I became skilled at changing the subject with such tactics as “oh, look at the time, I’m late for class”, and “hey, look at that girl over there”, which for college guys works pretty much the same as when a beagle sees a squirrel.

 

The first team meeting was held just after I had settled into the dormitory. We had NCAA paperwork to sign, a lecture about all the rules we couldn’t break, and marching orders to show up at student health later for a physical. The coach went around the room and had everyone introduce himself. At my turn, he said, “oh, yeah, you came in with your mother this summer”. Great, first day and I’m going to be tagged as a momma’s boy, but at least he remembered me. The scholarship members introduced themselves as various championship finalists and the like, all with personal bests much faster than mine. There was some relief in learning a few other walk-ons didn’t have such impressive credentials, though they certainly were not 12-minute 2-milers. I recognized a couple of the other freshmen as runners who had thoroughly trounced me in high school meets, and really wished they had been at the Tobacco Festival races. They wouldn’t recognize me from other meets, but they might have thought, “Hey, that’s the guy that kicked ass in that road race in Shelbyville”.  

 

It was doubtful with that much talent on the team and more to come that I would ever be on the varsity, but I set a long term goal of breaking into the top 7 at least once before graduation. It was ambitious and unrealistic, but it kept me motivated. The short term goal was to survive.

 

During the first few weeks of training, as I was hauling near or at my race-pace just to keep up on “easy runs”, I wondered if I might be in over my head. I had averaged 5th man on a high school cross country team that finished third in our regional meet, but I was now on a team with guys that had been contesting for the win while I was bringing up the rear.

 

I was also struggling academically and not getting enough sleep that first semester, having chosen a time consuming major – computer science – that I was ill-suited to pursue. In 1981 we knew that “computers” were going to be a big thing, but we didn’t know exactly how. It was going to be a way to make big bucks though, which pleased my parents who thought of college as career education. My high school had one Radio Shack TRS 80 with a cassette tape deck memory that I had played with for a few hours, so clearly I was prepared for whatever it was computer scientists did. I found out quickly that I was not wired to write code, so it took me forever to badly complete my assignments on the rarely available computer lab terminals hooked to the mainframe.  I fell further and further behind in my 5 credit math course at the same time. While other students were walking to the stadium on Saturdays to see our national champion football team play, I was walking the other way to the computer lab hoping the game would drain off the competition for terminals. 

 

I saw guys on campus who had soundly beaten me in high school, but had no interest in being anything but regular students. There were probably a couple dozen of these regular students, and several members of the women’s team, who were faster than me. Had I left the team, I would have had more time to study, sleep, and live the college life of going to ballgames and parties and no one could have blamed me for doing so.

 

Even with all of this going against me, I never once considered quitting the team. For me, being on that team and being successful academically was the college life I wanted. It wasn’t a sacrifice; it was a gift and a privilege.

 

I’ve lost my log book from that first year, which might be just as well. What I do remember clearly – besides getting lost and running an unscheduled 18 miler that ended with me sheepishly knocking on the door of a farm house – was a pre-season 5K time trial on our cross country course. I came to hate our home course, which was on the back half of the university’s golf course. It was hilly, had mushy footing, and lower sections that were perpetually soggy from the daily watering run off. However, the time trial was at least not run on the worst parts of the course (we had 5 mile and 10K versions for official meets). In high school my best cross country time was 19:24, run on a flat hard packed course. I’d spent that spring with chronic bronchitis, and as noted above I only put in modest mileage over the summer. To my surprise, I managed to hang in with many of the other walk-ons to run something under 18 minutes, a time that might have helped earn my team a spot at the state meet the year before. Still not great by college standards, but I felt less like an imposter after that run.

 

The First Meet

I was both proud and extremely nervous the fist time I put on an Eastern Kentucky uniform before a real 5 mile college cross country meet at our home course. I looked in the mirror and there he was; the formerly overweight, orthopedic shoe wearing, slowest kid in the class, all decked out in a uniform with the name of his university across the chest. EASTERN KENTUCKY it said. Wow. Shit. What the hell was I thinking? I need to go back to the dorm.

 

I pulled myself together, got in a warm-up, and lined up – shaking – with my teammates in our chalked out box for the start. The gun went off and there was that noise, that beautiful noise, of dozens of spiked feet thundering over the earth like a buffalo stampede. There’s nothing quite like being frightened and in the middle of such a thing, and there’s no place on earth I would rather have been in that moment. “Holy shit, I’m running in a college cross country meet!”

 

Soon enough we had formed the inevitable long line of runners and I had, predictably, fallen towards the back of that line with the slowest “B team” runners. I ran as hard as I was able, and each time I wanted to give up and coast I remembered I was wearing that maroon shirt with the university name in big white letters across the chest. Front, middle, or back of the pack, I needed to represent. My race wasn’t pretty and my form was anything but graceful, but I slogged through the muck and up and down the hills to cross the finish line in around 32 or 33 minutes, well after the winner but ahead of a couple of other runners. I survived the first season never finishing last in a meet – always close to it, but not last.

 

I had a miserable first semester academically and changed majors to something I knew I was much better at from my summer at KSU – psychology – with a goal of becoming a sport psychologist. My parents were upset because they didn’t think I could make a living with a philosophy degree; no one was going to pay me to talk about whether the tree was real or imagined, they said. Once we got that confusion straightened out, everything was fine and my grades improved. Track season was similar to cross country. I ran a couple of 5000 meter races finishing near the back of the pack but again never last. My times were much better than what I’d done in high school, but nothing to brag about. I found it difficult to focus for twelve and a half laps, and I always went out too fast thinking I had to stick with the leaders.

 

The Sophomore

I didn’t find out until it was too late that because I had failed a class during that brutal first semester (for the first and only time in my life) that I had not earned enough credits to be eligible for the next year. My GPA was good thanks to the credits I carried in with me, but those didn’t count towards my academic-athletic progress total so I was “red shirted” for the sophomore year.

 

Coincidentally, thanks to budget cuts, the men’s cross country team was dropped that year anyway. It was bad for the re-building program, but it wasn’t such a bad thing for me. The coach became our faculty advisor for the ‘Colonels Track Club” or whatever we called it. No new recruits came in, and most of the remaining scholarship runners had graduated or left for other programs. There were maybe 8 or 9 of us left so I got to compete and score points for the club team. We got trounced by the DI teams, but we were competitive with some of the small college teams. I was now running around 31 minutes give or take.

 

Unlike the cross country team, the varsity indoor and outdoor track teams survived the budget cuts. I was not eligible to compete officially, but it really didn’t matter. I trained with the team and ran the same few home and near-by meets I would have anyway. The only difference was I ran in my own gear rather than a team uniform. I felt less pressure all the way around the second year and was able to develop athletically and academically. I also ran my second half-marathon; the year before I had an as yet undiagnosed massive sinus infection and struggled home in 1:27 (landing in the ER a week later with a high fever). This time I made it home in 1:19:55, meaning I ran 13 miles at the same pace I could hold for only 2 miles just two years earlier. No doubt about it, I was still better at road racing than cross country or track. That summer I put in as many miles as my camp counselor job allowed, which wasn’t as much as I wanted but enough for a decent base of fitness.

 

The Junior

For most of my time at EKU, walk-on athletes were given the same workouts as the scholarship guys, so we did our best to keep up or adapt. For example, when given a workout of 20 x 400 meters at 72 – 74 seconds with a 400 meter recovery jog, I would run about that pace when it was my turn to lead, but otherwise I ran a less suicidal pace for me (maybe 75 – 80 seconds) and then did my recovery jog faster so I could catch back up before the next interval. For distance runs out on the roads, I just held on as long as I could. I was going near my race pace several times per week, which didn’t leave much in the tank for actual racing. I probably ran some unofficial personal records during some of those workouts. Not exactly a training plan I would prescribe for anyone today, but we knew the workouts were designed for the fastest runners. Youthful ego meant we had to try to do the same as they were doing. If I knew then what I know now, I would have backed way off and saved my best efforts for the meets.

 

Junior year the cross country team was restored and some fast new recruits came in, including some international runners. We walk-ons were fortunate to have a new graduate assistant coach, Dave Schaufuss, who took an interest in tailoring our workouts more to our abilities. Dave had been an NAIA All-America runner at Cumberland College and was one of the top runners in region. It wasn’t just that the workouts were more reasonable for our level of fitness and ability, it was that Dave genuinely cared about our performances even though most of us never scored a point. Not that the other coaches didn’t care, but it always seemed they had too much on their plates and had to focus on winning meets. There wasn’t much time to keep track of the guy that finished 5th from last. I understood that; it was a varsity sport not a running club, and I was on the team because the head coach had allowed it. If I wasn’t internally motivated and needed a lot of praise, I would have had a really bad time.

 

What I learned from Dave is that a more cooperative, holistic approach can get the best out of an athlete. I was always very fit from hanging with faster runners, but I was also very fatigued. Dave would see how we were feeling physically and mentally before a workout, and adapt as needed. He taught us that consistency was the key, not any given “ball buster’ workout. This was probably the first time I heard the concept of finishing a workout knowing you could have done more. He was also a bit of a wild man, so we learned it was okay to cut loose now and then and celebrate our personal victories.

 

That fall I ran under 30 minutes (29:41) in a 5 mile cross country race for the first time, finished 2nd overall in a small road race, and saw my 38:06 10K road PR drop to 36:33, 35:28, and 34:25 in the space of one month.

 

Wendy's 10K Classic 1983. 80th place in 34:25
Wendy’s 10K Classic 1983. 80th place in 34:25

 

Unfortunately, I still wasn’t much of a track racer and that spring I continued to go out way too fast for my abilities in a vain attempt to stick with the leaders. Opening miles of 5:05 or so meant a lot of pain for a guy that could barely run under 5 minutes for one mile. Then again, in my 10K road PRs I had gone out in 5:10 – 5:15 before settling into a more sustainable pace, so early pacing wasn’t the whole problem. Part of the explanation was that I had trouble keeping my focus for 12 ½ hamster wheel laps of the same scenery. I still used imagery techniques which helped in cross country, but it was hard to formulate a mental map plan for running around a flat track. Plus, our track was located in such a way that half of every lap was run into a head wind that not only pushed me back, it messed up my lovely long hair and dried out my contact lenses. Just like in high school, as a cross country and track athlete I made a pretty good road racer. My lack of focus on the track helped fuel my desire to study sport psychology; surely there was a way for me to do better.

 

Running unattached, white uniform, going out with the leaders again. It didn't last.
Running unattached, white uniform, going out with the leaders again. It didn’t last.

 

The Senior

Somewhere between the junior and senior year began my first experience with running injuries that were more than the minor ‘take a day off’ type I had up to then. I put in a lot of miles over the summer despite the nagging pain in the front and back of both knees. Back on campus, the football focused athletic trainers didn’t seem able to figure out what was wrong; repetitive motion injuries were not their specialty I presume. They had me doing some strengthening work on an isokinetic machine and getting in the ice bath after workouts, which was enough to keep me running but the problem wasn’t getting better. I struggled through the cross country season but somehow managed to not run too much slower than I had the previous season and to break 17 minutes in a road 5K for the first time. Eventually I was sent to an orthopedist, got a tendonitis in multiple locations diagnosis, and was referred on to a physical therapist. The PT got me on a good home exercise program to fix the muscular strength imbalances he found in my legs (I was lifting weights regularly, but still hadn’t learned to make a running specific program). After a just a couple weeks of that I was pain free and ready for my final season of track. Lesson learned; the sooner you get medical attention for injuries the sooner you can get back to normal running.

 

I kicked off the spring with a 34:54 road 10K, but ran only 17:54 in my first track 5000m of the season, still having trouble focusing and not going out too fast. Most runners have PRs on the track that are faster than their road PRs; for me it remained just the opposite, even though in central Kentucky even the somewhat less hilly road courses are euphemistically tagged as having “gently rolling hills”. If a race director ever actually described a course as “hilly”, you could figure it went over a mountain.

 

I ran my first 3000 meter (1.8 mile) track race next, but I didn’t record the time. I only remember it being something just north of 10 minutes. Next up was the final home track meet of my career, and I was determined to focus and get a 5000 meter time at least as fast as my road time. I ran my heart out that day; every time I started to lose focus I reminded myself that this was it, my last collegiate track race. It was the best track race of my career, with a 17:15 result. Still not a great time for college, but it was a 36 second PR and led to the coach giving me a shot at running my first track 10,000 meters at the Kentucky Relays the next week.

 

I’d like to say my only track 10K went well, but as you can imagine if it is difficult to maintain concentration for 12 ½ laps, moving up to 25 laps is not going to make things better. Even though the longer distance was more to my liking on the road, I could only manage a 37 flat on the track. To make matters worse, there were only two runners behind me (by about a half lap) as I was going into my last lap, but they both “finished” a lap early and left me to look like I was last. To be fair, it’s really easy to lose count of laps in a 10,000 and the officials really can’t keep track since there are people being lapped who are also lapping other runners. I was probably more than a mile behind the winner, meaning I’d been lapped 3 or 4 times, maybe even 5. I was left pondering if I had run an extra lap, or if the two runners behind me had run one short. If the former then at least my real time would have been under 36 minutes, so let’s just go with that.

 

The Senior, Part 2 – The Running Bum Awakens

My determination to make the top 7 in cross country at least once was such that I came back for one more try. Under NCAA rules, because I was red-shirted my sophomore year, I still had one year of eligibility remaining. Knowing this going into my senior year, I took fewer classes and saved some electives for an extra semester. This plan was also meant to help me boost my grade point average to strengthen my graduate school applications since I was still climbing out of the GPA hole I had dug with the computer science fiasco. As a bonus, I won a Scholar-Athlete award from the university president, which was nice after my rough start. I registered for a minimum full time credit load, finished the official senior year, and headed into a summer of preparation. Thus began my running bum phase.

 

I asked Coach Dave, who had moved to Lexington to pursue his professional running aspirations, to help me plan a summer program. Phase I included 6 weeks of 90 miles per week, including a Sunday long run of 15 to 20 miles. Phase II dropped the mileage down to 80 per week while alternating various hill repeats, interval, and repetition workouts. Both phases included twice per week weight training. To ensure I had enough training time during the week, I requested the worst camp counselor job available – kitchen helper. While it was the worst in terms of grunt work, this was the only job that did not require supervision of the campers, and it gave me long enough breaks between meals that I could get in three workouts per day if I wanted (e.g., two runs and a weight training session) or an honest-to-goodness recovery nap. The previous two summers my training had been compromised not only by having just a small window of time to sneak in my workouts, but by horrid allergies and not getting much sleep thanks to a cabin full of excited kids that wouldn’t go the f*** to sleep. Occasionally the kids got to hear me reflexively shout that word when I was jolted out of my sleep by a calf cramp from not fully rehydrating before another muggy night in the cabin. The kitchen staff, in contrast, bunked in the only air-conditioned space available to the counselors, which helped reduce my allergy symptoms and let me get better quality sleep. Conveniently, it was also where we kept the weights. Scrubbing pots and pans and mopping floors, instead of teaching archery or boating, seemed a small price to pay for the luxury of adequate training and sleep time.

 

The book that summarized my first two summers as camp counselor. Credit gothef***tosleep [dot] org (only without the *** of course).
The book that summarized my first two summers as camp counselor. Credit gothef***tosleep [dot] org (only without the *** of course).

 

Other than the long runs (I only got in a couple of 15 – 17 milers), I did a good job sticking to the higher mileage training plan. I had arrived at the 90 mile per week limit by trial and error, and Dave agreed that there was no sound reason to risk injury and burnout by pushing past that. The 75 – 80 mile weeks that followed seemed pretty easy, despite the addition of the harder once per week workouts. There was a monster of a hill, about a quarter mile long, leading from the lakefront to the camp headquarters. I did 8 to 12 repeat sprints up it at nearly full effort most weeks of the second phase. Not exactly what Dave had recommended, but I wanted to build up my hill running strength given the hilly nature of our home course. I tried to do these while the campers were at their activities, but sometimes they would finish before I completed the workout. They really didn’t know what to make of the thin, shirtless, long-haired dude soaked in sweat running like a mad man uphill. When I would grab a drink at the water fountain at the top the kids would sincerely ask me if I had been swimming. I sweat. A lot. I had to remember not to do my usual move of wringing the sweat out of the crotch of my shorts while the kids were around.

 

Photo credit: EKU Milestone
Photo credit: EKU Milestone

 

The “Timed Run” of Legend

I ran only one race before getting back to campus in the fall, a hilly 5K road run in 17:03. This was my second best time for the distance, which was not a bad sign since I was still training hard and didn’t rest for it. A month later, official practices had been under way for a couple of weeks when the coach told us the workout would be a “timed run” of 5 miles on the road. He gave us a set pace of 5:30 per mile and told us to stick to it, then he did something he had never done before; he went up ahead of us on his motor scooter to supervise and give split times at each mile. With the usual early season walk-ons included, there was a big knot of runners in the group when we set off across campus and down the sidewalk into town, spilling over into the roadway. I settled into the middle of the pack and tried to stay on the prescribed pace, but it felt too slow. Sure enough, at the mile we were way behind pace per the coach’s stopwatch, but I noticed the faster guys didn’t seem to be following his command to speed up. As a 5th year senior and the oldest member of the team, I felt an obligation to be a team leader, so I swung out and moved to the front of the pack to pick the pace up to what was prescribed.

 

This move seemed to surprise the other guys, but I was feeling good and had no trouble running 5:30 pace. In fact, I felt like I could run quite a bit faster. Three or four of our top runners came with me as the rest of the group receded behind us. One of the front runners incredulously asked me what I thought I was doing. “Running the workout coach told us to run”, I deadpanned in response. Ego being what it is amongst speedy young men, having a B teamer setting the pace didn’t sit well so the pace quickened. When I had no trouble matching it, things settled down. Our group of four led the way, with me trying to be a “coachable” athlete by keeping us on the 5:30 pace. Going into the final mile of the run, the other three started pulling away from me and I let them go. Not because I couldn’t stay with them, but because I was trying to stick to the workout, silly me.

 

It wasn’t until too late that I figured out what the coach was really up to. With perhaps a half mile left, he pulled along side me on his scooter to yell “don’t slow down now, Rogers!” I was confused and about to protest that I was still doing what he told us when I realized maybe this wasn’t really a set pace workout; maybe it was a time trial to help him pick the varsity for the first meet. Well, shit. I nodded at the coach, picked up the pace and powered for the barn, finishing in 27:22 (5:28 pace, despite the slow first mile) but unable to catch the guys I had let go. I have no doubt I would have run under 27 minutes had he just called it a time trial. I’m not sure if he changed the workout intentionally or just saw what was unfolding with me pushing his top guys and wanted to see what I could do; perhaps his lump of coal had finally turned into a diamond.

 

The other returning walk-ons were shocked at how well I had run, and thought it was funny that I had apparently gotten under the skin of one of our top runners. Years later I ran into one of the guys and that run was the first thing he mentioned. I still wish I had figured out what was going on at the same time the others in the lead group had. I doubt I would have beaten them since it would have come down to a kick finish, but it would have been great to have pushed them right to the end.  

 

Rudy, Rudy, Rudy

I left practice after the timed run with nervous anticipation that I just might have punched my ticket for a varsity spot for the first meet in one week’s time. I had finished in the top 5 in the “time trial” and everyone else was pretty far behind. But alas, I wasn’t considering that, first, this was presented as a workout so some of the guys behind me weren’t going all out, and second, a couple of faster guys weren’t there that day for one reason or another. In addition, the coach had four years of seeing that my road race results were not predictive of my cross country results. It was his job to win, and he just couldn’t risk having me on the first team. In his position I would do the same.

 

In what I took as a consolation prize of sorts, when the teams were posted in the locker room he had placed me as the number one runner on the B team. Essentially, he had ranked me as the 8th best runner on the team. When years later I saw the movie “Rudy”, I realized that this had been my Rudy moment; hard work and determination hadn’t gotten me on the varsity but it had earned me some respect. I was in the game.

 

Rudy. Copyright Tristar Pictures. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108002/
Rudy. Copyright Tristar Pictures. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108002/

 

Morehead State Invitational

My summer training plan was not designed for me to peak at the end of the season, but at the beginning when I would have my best shot at beating one of our designated top 7. Not everyone trains like they should over the summer, so I needed to catch them before they got into top shape. That chance would come at Morehead State University which, despite being located in the Appalachian Mountains, had one of the flatter, faster courses in the state. Well, flat by Kentucky standards, at least, but it had firmer footing than our home course. For me, the more of a road feel a course had the better.

 

Something else interesting had happened during a team meeting the first week or so of practice. For the only time I can remember, the coach showed us “game film” of one of our home meets from the previous season. As I’ve mentioned, I was not an elegant looking cross country runner, especially on that brutal course, but I didn’t think I looked too horrible. Miserable, but not horrible. In the stadium style classroom sat a new freshman recruit who had been a top middle distance runner in a big city in a larger state. He was objectively more talented than me by far, but not experienced with longer cross country races. Said freshmen would point and laugh derisively each time I ran across the screen and shout, “oh my god, look at that guy, ha ha ha, he looks so funny!” He was talented, but not very mature. No one else laughed, mostly because they weren’t jerks but partly because they knew that he didn’t know that that guy was sitting right behind him. After he had dug his hole deep enough I leaned forward, placed my hand on his shoulder, and whispered, “that funny looking guy is right behind you; I’ll see you out there, freshman”.

 

Unlike road races, I was always nervous before meets. I was probably more nervous before the MSU meet than I had been in my career, with the possible exception of regional championships in high school. This was only a small invitational meet with a few teams, but it was a championship of sorts for me. Plus I was really determined to help a certain new freshman to mature. We lined up in our box, the gun went off and the race was on. I made sure my new freshman buddy was in sight, and went through the mile in 5:04. By the second mile, crossed in 10:28 I knew that I was doing my best but all of the top 7 had moved out of reach. With that goal gone, I focused on racing whoever was near me, especially the freshman, and running as fast a time as possible. The B team still scores as a team, and we were usually competitive with the smaller schools A teams and other B teams.

 

Each time the freshman would pass me, I would surge past him and settle back in which annoyed him to no end. After a few of these cat and mouse moves he asked “what are you doing, man?” to which I coolly responded “racing”. This is the only time in my life that I raced angry. This guy had no idea what I had been through to get where I was, and where I was at that moment was right next to a disrespectful man child with an 800 meter PR 30 seconds faster than mine. You might beat me, I thought, but you’re going to know you were in a fight. The three mile mark was passed in 16:22, then four miles in 22:18 which meant after the opening two miles I had settled into a pace just under 6 minutes per mile. I was hurting, but I was determined to finish strong and picked up the pace as much as my body would allow for the last mile. I wasn’t able to drop the freshman using surges, and with his middle distance speed I knew he would out kick me. Nonetheless I pushed him right to last few meters of the race. I crossed the line shortly after him, clocking a 27:58 (5:35 pace). It was a PR by almost 2 minutes. He looked back at me after we finished; his expression was a mix of surprise, exhaustion, and maybe some grudging respect. He certainly wasn’t laughing at my goofy running form. “Good run”, I told him.

 

I did not break into our top 7 that day, and I was not the number one man on the B team either. Some of the guys who had dogged it during that timed run, or who weren’t there, stepped it up on race day as expected. But despite missing my ambitious goal, I had the best cross country race of my career in finishing as the fourth scorer on the B team, making me the 11th fastest cross country runner on a team that was by then winning conference championships. Looking back now, this might have been the best quality race overall of my entire career.

 

One week later, without the anger, I had my best run ever on our home course. I still hated that course, but it was my last ever home meet so I pushed to a 29:09, a 50 second course PR. Two weeks after that I wrapped up my collegiate career with a 34 second course PR at Berea College, running 29:07. I did not, of course, break into the top 7 in those meets, but I was satisfied that I had run as hard as possible and done everything I could have done. It was a perhaps unrealistic goal, but it pushed me to be the best runner I could be.

 

Post Season

After the season I had time to reflect. I thought that perhaps the reason why the coach was willing to take on hard working walk-ons with little chance of scoring points was that he knew it would make everyone better. My “legendary” 5 mile timed run that season, while the most memorable, wasn’t the only time I – or other walk-ons – had pushed some of the top runners. Hopefully I had helped make that freshman and other teammates better runners and more importantly, better human beings.

 

I was wistful knowing my cross country and track racing days were over. Sure, I could jump in a meet as an unattached runner, but I didn’t see the point of doing so without the team atmosphere. After pushing myself through eight track seasons and eight cross country seasons, soon enough the wistfulness turned into a sense of calm. Training for events that I wasn’t very good at had made me stronger and I had a great base of fitness. From that point forward I could use that strength to attack the roads where I had experienced most of my best races. I had desperately wanted to be great in cross country and track, but that was behind me now. For the first time since I joined the high school track team, I was simply a road runner. The post-collegiate racing was just starting.

 

I had come a long way. 

 

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Big Announcement! Dr. Matt is in the Coaching Business (Updated)

Comrades Wall South Africa 2010

 

I have formed Sport Science Running & Fitness, LLC, gotten my ducks mostly in a row, and am set to begin taking clients as a running coach. If you are interested in learning more, click the Coaching for Runners tab or drop me an email at matt@SportScienceRunning.com or call 505-299-0127. I will be coaching worldwide online and in-person in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

Update: Ask about charter member fees! Save up to $1200 a year!

*******

In this blog post I briefly discuss how you might benefit from hiring a running coach. Full disclosure, since I am in the business of coaching runners I’m predisposed to thinking it’s a good idea. If I didn’t think it was helpful, I wouldn’t do it. Does everyone need a coach? Probably not, as I discuss below, but nearly everyone can improve more with the help of a good coach than they can on their own. Much depends on the runner’s goals and what they want to get out of the sport. I approach the topic using examples of some general categories of runners. Not everyone fits neatly into these categories, but I believe they illustrate how coaching can be a benefit in a variety of situations.  Am I the right coach for you? We won’t find out unless we discuss it, so drop me a line if you are interested. No obligations, no hard feelings if it isn’t a good fit for your needs, or mine for that matter. 

 CSCS 001

Do you need a coach?

Virtually any runner at any level – beginning fitness runner to Olympian – benefits from having a coach to help plan and guide his or her training. Some athletes do a good job training themselves, while other self-coached runners seem to “have a fool for a client”. Here are my thoughts on what you should consider when deciding if you would benefit from hiring a coach to guide your training.

 

 RRCA Coaching Certificate MattRogers 001 (2)

 

Beginning Runners

Beginning adult runners are usually interested in running primarily to better their fitness. This is a wise choice for most, as running is one of the best and most efficient means to improve one’s health and endurance. It is common for beginners to take up the challenge of training for a 5k (3.1 miles) fun run that is a few weeks or months in the future. This distance is long enough to provide a motivating challenge, but short enough that finishing is a realistic goal for virtually anyone willing to prepare. Not all beginners are interested in participating in a formal fun run, but the principle is the same for working up to a given distance in your own neighborhood.

 

Many beginners are able to successfully use a “couch to 5k” or similar program to meet this initial fitness goal, but others find it difficult to customize a generic program for their particular needs or limitations. A coach will provide a plan customized to the current level of the runner. The training plan will progress at the appropriate rate for the appropriate length of time, and be modified along the way based on the runner’s feedback. A knowledgeable coach will also help cut through the maze of confusing and often conflicting information concerning proper footwear, clothing, hydration, nutrition, stretching and strengthening exercises, and be able to address the runner’s other questions and concerns. Having a coach helps reduce the ‘first race jitters’ by letting the runner know what to do and what to expect on race morning, and can prevent a beginning runner from making a lot of “rookie” mistakes in general. Better to learn from the mistakes of others than from the school of hard knocks. The bottom line is that while following a canned program will probably get you to the finish line, using a coach will help keep what should be a fairly simple and fun activity, well, simple and fun.  

 

Beginning to Intermediate Runners

Then there are the runners who have met the challenge of a first 5k, loved the experience, and want to take up a new challenge but aren’t sure what to do next. They wonder if they should train to run faster 5ks, or to run farther (such as a 10k), or perhaps take up both challenges at once. Once that’s sorted out, it usually doesn’t take long for these runners to think of longer term goals, such as ‘maybe I can run a half marathon some day, or maybe even a full marathon of 26.2 miles’. It can be a daunting task to determine realistic goals and set realistic time frames for those goals. A coach will help with appropriate goal setting and design both short term and long term plans to reach those goals. A good coach also knows that sometimes a runner needs a pep talk to keep going, while at other times he or she will need help realizing it’s time to back off the throttle. If a runner has just completed her first 5k in 40 minutes and decides she will go for a sub-30 in a couple of weeks, her coach will gently let her know that a sub-30 is possible in the longer term, but will help her set a more realistic short term goal. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

 

Some intermediate level runners are happy to keep running mostly for the fun and fitness aspects, and perhaps the challenge of running longer distances ‘just to finish’, while other will catch the competition bug and become more performance oriented ‘age groupers’ and beyond. Both are fine choices, each with its own set of challenges and rewards. Some people want to run a Boston Marathon qualifier and some want to run a marathon in every state, while most are somewhere in between. Every runner is unique and each should determine what they want out of the sport. The coach is there to help guide the runner along whatever path he or she chooses.

 

Intermediate to Advanced Runners

Some ‘advanced’ runners are not all that experienced. On occasion, a runner discovers he or she has some real talent for running during their first race, maybe placing in the age group competition after minimal training, and catches the racing bug. I think these runners especially benefit from having a coach to guide them since it is all too easy to do “too much, too soon” which can lead to injury and burn out. Even if the runner takes a more conservative approach, it is difficult to know just how to train and he or she will be exposed to confusing, conflicting, and outright bad advice. In the information age, everyone is an “expert”. But in general when I use the term advanced runner, I am referring to someone that’s been around the sport for a while and has a good grasp on what it’s all about.

 

Some experienced runners with a solid understanding of the physiological principles underpinning endurance training do just fine by modifying a “cookie cutter” training program from a book, magazine, or website. There are many good resources available for those willing to invest the time in designing their own training program. Still, it should be remembered that even world class, Olympic level runners nearly all employ coaches. Runners at all levels benefit from a cooperative coach-athlete relationship in which the coach helps plan and modify training. For many athletes, having someone else do the bulk of the thinking means they are free to just go execute the workouts. If you are knowledgeable and analytical, you may still prefer designing your own training program. Otherwise, consider the benefits of working with a coach.

 

Another factor to consider is that it is common for runners to find their progress has stagnated after a year or more in the sport. When they first began serious running, their times improved rapidly as they improved their fitness, which is the norm. This almost magical improvement from race to race is very rewarding, but usually only lasts a year or two with adult runners before fitness levels off. This is due to the “floor effect”; the less fit you are when you start, the more room for improvement you have; in other words, even with modest training you can only go up. But eventually the runner discovers the “ceiling effect”, meaning that the less room there is left for improvement the more effort it takes to make small gains. When dealing with performance improvement in running, the law of diminishing returns is in play. It really is easier and quicker, physiologically speaking, to go from an initial 45 minute 5k to a 30 minute 5k than it is to get from that 30 minutes down to 25 minutes. For many runners, the former occurs in the space of a few months, while that latter may take another one or two  years. Once performance has leveled off, a coach can usually figure out how to help a runner make those small, incremental improvements that can be even more rewarding than the initial break-through runs.  If you are stuck in place or sliding backwards in your performances, I consider that to be one of the best reasons of all to hire a coach.

 

Coach Matt in his Collegiate Days, circa 1985. That's some great hair.
Dr. Matt in his Collegiate Days, circa 1985. That’s some great hair.

 

Post-Collegiate/Elite Runners

This group includes athletes that previously ran for a NAIA, NCAA or other collegiate cross-country and/or track & field program, and elite runners who are of that same general age range (20s and 30s) even if they did not run for a college team. These are professional runners, even though only a handful makes a living solely from running.

 

Please note, before engaging the services of a private coach, any athlete with eligibility and considering competing for a collegiate or scholastic program is advised to determine if doing so is within the rules of the governing bodies and institutions involved. It should also go without saying that any such athlete should not accept any sponsorship or prize money that could jeopardize his or her amateur status.  

 

I’ve already mentioned that Olympic level runners nearly all have coaches. At that level the coaches are usually paid by some combination of money from the athlete’s sponsors, national governing body, and a percentage of the athlete’s prize money. Most post-collegiate runners aspiring to reach that level can at best get some free gear and maybe a small training stipend from their sponsors or other groups, in addition to whatever prize money they might win. Fortunately in the US some training programs have been set up over the last few years to help these runners pursue their dreams.  Unfortunately, not every elite runner is quite at the level to earn one of the limited spots in those groups. Some may continue to work with their former collegiate or high school coaches, but many simply have little choice but to coach themselves while working a part-time job. Few runners at this young professional level doubt the importance of having a coach to guide their short and long term progress. If you are a post-collegiate/elite runner who falls in that gap I’ve just described, I invite you to contact me to see what we can work out.

 

Dr. Matt, More Recently. Running Keeps You Young.
Dr. Matt, More Recently. Camel Rock, New Mexico

 

Masters Runners

Masters competition for most running events begins on one’s 40th birthday. The older one gets, the more factors must be considered in designing a training program. It is a very rare masters runner that can continue doing the same volume and intensity of training he or she did as a 25 or 30 year old. In fact, most runners notice that it becomes more and more difficult to properly recover after hard workouts as they move through their 30s. Of course, many masters runners only enter the sport after their 40th birthday, some far after, so this is another factor taken into account when designing a training program. While the experienced masters runner knows his or her fastest days are probably in the past, a beginner to intermediate masters runner is likely to improve for some time, but still needs more rest and more injury prevention measures than a younger counterpart. For the masters athlete, a coach becomes invaluable for squeezing the maximum benefit out of the minimal amount of training necessary.

 Until next time, be well and happy trails!

 

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If you are interested in learning more, click the Coaching for Runners tab or drop me an email at matt@SportScienceRunning.com or call 505-299-0127. 

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part III – Varsity

 

SCHS XC Meet start 79 -I'm on the left

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In Part II  I discussed the further quirks, embarrassments, and stubborn persistence of my later youth. These included my quixotic tryouts for the middle and high school basketball teams, designing my first workout program at age 13, joining the high school track team, getting lapped in the mile run, and the accidental sprint workout that changed everything. We left off at my decent post-revelation run in the PE class mile, followed by the realization that I had the summer to get ready for my first cross country season in the fall.

Today I continue the story of going from last place high school freshman to a goal of making the varsity team, making some big time training mistakes, discovering road racing and the flow state, and beginning the next quixotic adventure – the plan to join a collegiate cross-country and track team.

 

Into the Sophomore Breech

I spent the summer before my second year of high school running nearly every day, riding my bicycle, lifting weights, and often getting in trouble for neglecting my farm chores. I also did a tremendous amount of static stretching, something that started during my middle school days and continued throughout high school. From the 1970s until just a few years ago, nearly every running and sports expert in the world was emphatic about the need to thoroughly stretch before and after every run or workout to prevent injury and run better, and I took this advice to heart. If a little was good, a lot must be better. I often spent up to 45 minutes doing every stretching exercise I knew three or four times before I went out for my run, and again when I got back. I got so limber that I could easily do forward splits, stand with my knees locked and put my palms on the floor, and other contortionist like tricks. Had stretching for runners been a sport, I would have been world champion.

As a practical joke in cahoots with the coach, I once was paired with a new team member for “buddy stretches”. One stretch involved long sitting on the floor – knees locked out – with the bottoms of each partner’s shoes together. From there we would grasp hands while one partner gently pulled the other forward to stretch the back of the legs and lower back. On my turn to be stretched, the unsuspecting newbie pulled and I “collapsed” forward, head to knees. “Oh my God, you killed him!” the coach cried, “I told you not to pull so hard!” Good times. (Flexibility training – which I was not doing correctly back then – is a topic I plan to write about in the future, but for now let’s just say having the flexibility of a 9 year-old female gymnast is not favorable for running sports.)

The running gods took their revenge for my practical joke one icy day that winter as the team was running sprints down a long hallway inside the school. Just a few strides before going through the double doors in the center of the hall, the fire alarm made a quick bleep, causing the automatic doors to close. The runner next to me shot ahead and squeezed through the narrow opening while I slammed into the thick metal fire doors at nearly full speed. And to think, my mother was worried I would get hurt playing football.

 

The First Cross Country Season 

Cross country practice began in late summer, about 3 weeks before the start of the school year. It was still hot and humid, and allergy season was in full bloom. We gathered at the new city park that had just the prior season become home to our cross country course. The park had been carved out of farmland which had just a few years before been plowed or used for cattle pasture. No one was running the course regularly, so it had not been trodden into a well worn path by any means. The non-wooded portions had been seeded with grass, but it was still pretty lumpy and had a lot of soft spots due to its former agrarian usage. Opportunities for sprained ankles were everywhere; if there was a hole or rut to be stepped in, I would find it. I quickly learned this course would be much different from running on the track or the roads. To make matters worse, my severe seasonal allergies peaked in summer and persisted through the fall. Non-drowsy antihistamines had not yet come on the market, so it was either suffer the itchy red eyes, runny nose, wheezing, and frequent sneezing, or take a pill that put me to sleep during classes and made me feel hung over at practice. I usually chose the former. Ironically, my head would be the most clear during runs, even though I was ramming much more airborne pollen into my lungs. Unfortunately, at the end of each run a major rebound effect would cause a 10 to 20-minute sneezing jag, sore ribs, and more severe symptoms for a couple of hours. A cross country course is about the last place someone with such allergies should spend large amounts of the day.

Despite the lumpy course and allergic fits, I felt ready for my first ever cross country race after a summer of training and waiting to redeem myself for an embarrassing freshman track season. I got my chance in a junior varsity (JV) race at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer Park in Louisville. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was like a jockey having his first mount at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Sawyer Park is used regularly forNCAA regional and national championships. It has long been used for high school and collegiate meets, so unlike our home course, it had a relatively smooth running surface.

I recorded in my race log that I finished 67th in a field of 183 runners in that first JV meet on a 3000 meter (1.8 mile) course. I didn’t record a time or my place on the team but I’m pretty sure I was 3rd or 4th, losing to some future all-state freshmen feeling their way through their first ever race. I remember the surprised look on a couple of my team mates faces when they realized the guy that got lapped in the mile was running right along with them. I suspect my big brother, running on the varsity team, might have been a little less embarrassed to have me around after that performance, too.

That day I felt fast and competitive and tried to pass as many runners as I could, especially towards the end of the race. Cross country is a team sport, so the athletes are taught to beat as many runners as possible, no matter where they are in the field. Your finish place is your score (e.g., I scored 67 points that day), and lowest score wins. The points of the top 5 on each team are added to get the team score, but even the non-scoring 6th and 7th runners can add points to other teams’ scores if they beat any of their top 5. The team aspect is one of the best things about the sport, since even on a bad a day a runner can still come through for the team.

As good a performance as this was for me, finishing in the top half of the field, I was still disappointed at not winning or at least being in the top 10, since this was “only” a JV meet. This was a total change of perspective from that first track season only three months earlier. I had gone from jogging along while thinking the guys running all out were doing it wrong, to unrealistically thinking I should be winning.

It only became apparent to me what a good debut cross country race I had run once the rest of the season was in full swing. I ran in one other JV race at a big invitational that season, finishing 111th in a field of about 200. In the rest of the meets there was no JV race, so I ran as a member of the “B” team in 5k (3.1 mile) varsity races and finished all of them in the back of the field, usually beating only two or three runners, and finishing last a couple of times. I also realized what a difference a fast course like Sawyer Park meant for me. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the rubber legged, knock-kneed, lack of power feeling I had when racing was primarily caused by the combination of the mushy courses and all that static stretching. It would also be several years before I figured out I needed to correct a bouncy running form that was wasting energy by transferring what should have been forward momentum into vertical motion. I was running hard, but that effort was not being translated into speed. Apparently all of this was less of a limitation when running on smoother, harder surfaces like Sawyer, or during road races.

 

The Road Race

My first road race came when our coach used the local Tobacco Festival run (yes, a run celebrating the Tobacco harvest, this being Kentucky) as our third “cross country meet” of the season. I finished 32nd out of 60 runners, with a time of 39 minutes on a 5.6 mile course. If both my time record and the length of the course are accurate, that means I averaged 6:58 per mile. Compared to the 8-minute pace of my first couple of 3.1 mile races on the grass, this was quite a difference. I did manage to get my cross country time down to under 21 minutes (6:44 pace) near the end of the season, which given my limitations wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. But everyone else had improved too, so I was still bringing up the rear.

The main lessons from my first cross country season were that I needed to be patient and improve gradually, enjoy the personal best runs, marvel at how far I had come from the orthopedic shoe days, and not be so hard on myself. Of course, I didn’t learn any of that and instead continued to think I just wasn’t working hard enough or trying hard enough or stretching hard enough. I did learn that I would probably be more successful in road racing than in cross country, for what that was worth.

In the spring – having survived my winter battle with the fire door – I branched out on the track, running the half-mile and two-mile a couple of times, in addition to the mile. I still wasn’t varsity material, and continued to finish in the back of the field, often last, but I was now running around 5:45 in the mile consistently. I still hadn’t learned very good racing strategy, pacing, or tactics, and these shorter races did not play to my strengths, but compared to the freshman season this was a big improvement. I even finished second in a JV half mile race, leading all the way before being beaten at the line.

I wasn’t given a uniform to wear that track season, so I was still racing in the PE gear. When I summoned the courage to ask the coach why, he simply said I had yet to earn it for track. (There were three to four times as many athletes on the track team compared to the cross country team, meaning there were fewer uniforms to go around). That response added a little more fuel for the fire. Without permission from the coach, I borrowed my brother’s uniform for that JV half mile. If the coach was peeved, he didn’t say, so I suppose the second place put it out of his mind. Having the school name on my chest made a difference in my outlook that day, and I was determined to earn my own uniform for the next track season.

 

Varsity Blue and Gold, And Another Road Race

I was ready for another big summer of training in hopes of making the varsity in my second season of cross country in the fall, when I would be a junior. By this time I dared to dream I might actually earn a varsity letterman’s jacket, something unthinkable back in my awkward youth. I had also lost nearly all of the extra body fat and was developing the coveted runner’s legs. By the fall I was 5’ 9” tall and weighed around 145 pounds, nearly the same weight as when I was a 5’ tall husky kid. I actually started to look like an endurance athlete, though by this time I was more concerned about running fast than looking good. Four months before my 17th birthday I had surpassed the original goals set at age 13 without taking much notice.

Rolling into that junior season, I was still being pretty tough on myself. My log book notes a season goal of running under 17 minutes and finishing in the top 10 in the region. There was nothing in my running resume to indicate those marks as attainable, but I suppose an enthusiastic 16 year-old can be forgiven for having grandiose goals. Heck, I once thought I could make a state championship caliber basketball team, too. But I had put in a lot of miles over the summer and kept up the weight training (and unfortunately the obsessive stretching).

I surprised my coach and teammates by finishing 4th in a team time trial race to kick off our fall training campaign, running a new personal best of 20:32 on our lumpy home course. Given that the season before I was running at the tail end of the B team, this was a good start. Even though I was less than pleased at how far I was from my goal time, I realized a top 7 varsity spot was realistic. Three days later, our coach once again entered us in the Tobacco Festival road race, this time adding an official high school division and declaring the race as our “cross country” invitational.

That 1979 Tobacco Festival Run in Shelbyville, Kentucky proved to be the next major milestone in my running career. For a change, my log book note was positive; “A great race for me. I felt very strong and am looking forward to next year’s race.” I felt like I was flying that day. I caught and passed our top runners, and one of my favorite middle school teachers, about half way through the run and pulled away. I had my first experience with what I now would call a “flow state”,, feeling like a running machine. I had read about visualization techniques, and I knew the course so well it was easy to run the perfect race in my head in the days leading up to it. On race day, I simply executed the program I had written in my mind.

 

Fig. 1 Coach Wingfeld ready to start the 1980 Tobacco Festival run. I'm about 6th from picture right, no socks.
Coach Wingfeld ready to start the 1980 Tobacco Festival run. I’m about 6th from picture right, no socks. Photo by Joyce Ford, The Sentinel News

 

For the first time I was the number 1 runner on my team. I finished 6th in the high school division (11th overall in a field of 120), running 34:02 (6:05 pace, if the course is accurate), took 5 minutes off my time from the previous year, and led my team to a second place finish. My home from college brother, whom I’d never beaten at anything athletic, finished a minute and a half behind me. I earned my first running awards that day – a medal for the high school race and a trophy for the overall race – along with an announcement from the coach to the team that I was the man to beat that season. I really wish he hadn’t put that target on my back, but at the time I was happy to be in the spotlight.

Following the road race, I had a better cross country season than the previous year, despite having multiple ankle sprains necessitating running with support tape about half the time. Even the first running trophy I earned at the road race had a broken ankle. Though I still wasn’t nearly as fast on the grass as I was on the roads, I was consistent enough to keep my place on the varsity for all but one meet, and my days of finishing last were over. Unfortunately, in my first regional championship, held on our lumpy home course, I sprained my ankle again and had to drop out. But that season saw a big breakthrough, my first running award, and my first varsity letterman’s jacket, which I wore to school with pride nearly every day until graduation. Imagine, the husky pants wearing weird kid in the orthopedic shoes, the uncoordinated “fatso” picked last for everything, had earned a varsity jacket.

The rest of the high school career – always in the blue and gold team uniform – involved some steady improvement, with mile times in the low 5 minute range, a 2:17 half-mile, and low 12 minutes for 2 miles during the junior year track season. In the senior year of cross country I continued my slow and steady improvement, getting under 20 minutes a few times, including during the regional championship in which I did not sprain my ankle. It wasn’t great, but I held a solid spot in the top 7 throughout the season, had another good run at the Tobacco Festival, and earned another varsity letter.

The allergies contributed to a bout of chronic bronchitis that wiped out most of my last season of track, so there was no improvement on my times. I never finished high enough to score points in a varsity track meet. While I might have scored a few my senior year had I not been so ill, clearly these lung-searing middle distance races around the oval were not my forte.

 

Those Road Races, Though

There was little in my high school running career that indicated I should try to run in college, and in fact there was a lot to indicate I should not. Only a very small percentage of the many thousands of high school runners go on to run in college. Most runners considering walking on to collegiate teams have at least run around 10 minutes for 2 miles, 4:30 or so for the mile, not much over 2 minutes in the half mile, and low-to-mid 17s in cross country. Scholarship runners of course have run much faster and usually finished at or near the top in championship races. But you know me by now; I had to try. I looked to my road races to convince myself that I might have a chance at that level. I already knew I was better at longer races, and in college cross country races were either 8K (5 miles) or 10K (6.2 miles). On the track, distances races were 5K and 10K. The longer races probably just meant prolonged suffering for me compared to the shorter ones, but I did a good job putting that out of my mind.

 

High School BG10k maybe 001 (2)
A hot and humid 4th of July 10k. The chin up running style and my other form flaws have greatly improved since high school.

 

As in the previous cross country seasons, we kicked off my senior year of high school with the Tobacco Festival race, which had been lengthened to 10K. I was never sure of the exact distance of the old course; the newspaper reported it as 5.6 miles, an odd distance that makes comparisons to other races difficult. With the race now a legitimate 10,000 meters, I had something better to go by. I had run my first 10k on the Fourth of July after my sophomore year in sweltering heat and humidity, gone out way too fast and staggered to the finish in 48:18. The next summer, after the junior year, I raced a 43:04 as “practice” one week, and returned to the July 4 race the next to run 41:51. I had gone all out that summer, putting in over 80 miles of running most weeks, and finishing with three ill advised 100 mile weeks like the running magazines said world class runners were doing. I also pushed for new uniforms, so to pay for them we had a fund raising “runathon” shortly before our first race, during which I ran 24 miles. We really should have just had a bake sale. It took me a while to recover from that run and over-doing the summer mileage, but despite the leg fatigue I set a new personal best of 40:44 in the Tobacco Festival race, finishing 11th in the high school division and 20th overall. (More open runners will come out for a standard distance race, so the field was deeper, and my two all-state teammates got me back for the previous year.) In the fall and winter after cross country season, I gained more confidence by running three more road races, including a 40:20 and a 39:36 10K, and a very hilly 39:27 6-Mile. I also ran my first 10-Mile race that winter on a hilly course in bitterly cold and windy conditions. My time was not great (70:48), but I would return years later and take my revenge.

 

 

Fig. Mugging for the newspaper during a 24 mile mile
Husky no more. Mugging for the newspaper camera during a 24 mile run. Photo by Alan Butler, The Sentinel News. 

 

During the running boom of the 70s and 80s, breaking 40 minutes for 10k was the major goal for most male runners, at least the ones that hadn’t gone down the ‘jogging for health’ path that I first took up, but for a collegiate runner that was still very pedestrian. Be that as it may, my 39:36 was the best mark I had from high school, so with that in hand I began looking for a team that would have me.

 

In the next installment, I relate how I talked my way onto a collegiate team despite a lack of talent, and how the collegiate career evolved.

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part II – Jogger, Runner, Revelation

Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and other Celebs Jogging in Central Park in 1978. Photo credit unknown.
Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and other Celebs Jogging in Central Park in 1978. Photo credit unknown. 

 

In the last post [Part I – The Weird Kid], I discussed my early childhood quirks, weight issues, orthopedic shoes, lack of coordination, being picked last for every team, and my early awakening to the possibility of something better. In this post, I continue the story, including my embarrassing attempts to play big time basketball, designing my first workout sessions, my inauspicious entry into high school track, and a life changing revelation..

 

Bad Basketball

I formally began my health fitness journey in 1976 as an overweight 13 year old 7th grader. I was somewhat less physically awkward than I had been in grade school, thanks to physical education class (absent from the grade school curriculum), my discovery of softball, and by this time basketball. Regarding the latter, I learned to shoot pretty well, as long as no one was guarding me. In other words, I was an okay H.O.R.S.E. player on the hoop above the garage door. I would sometimes spend hours by myself just taking shots when I had no H.O.R.S.E. opponent, or my brother wasn’t beating me in a lopsided game of one-on-one.

We had a gravel driveway at the farm, so quite often the ball would ricochet off a rock and go careening down the big hill. My brother and I would nearly always fight over whose turn it was to run after the ball before it ended up a quarter mile away. I’m pretty sure this was not the way Michael Jordan’s basketball career began. I did learn to dribble the ball using the concrete floor in the garage or in the basement. As with shooting, I was pretty good as long as no one was guarding me. However, with the gravel driveway situation, I rarely was able to effectively practice coordinating my dribbling and shooting. I did try, and have the scars on my knees to show for it. 

In keeping with what would become a lifelong theme for me, I did not let my near total lack of skills keep me from trying out for the 7th grade team. The state religion of Kentucky is, after all, Southern Basketball, so I was convinced my life would only be complete if I could become a big star, win a high school state championship, and play for the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Or the Louisville Cardinals; I was conflicted about which team I liked best. Indiana was right out, though.

Not surprisingly, at tryouts when I got my turn to play one-on-one in front of the coaches, all I could do was turn my back on the other player and keep dribbling in a feeble attempt to back up towards the basket like I had seen real players do on TV. This would continue until the opponent either knocked the ball away, I dribbled off my foot, or the coach got frustrated and ended the drill. On my turn to play defense, the other player either was as bad as me and we had another dribbling stalemate, or he was much better and just dribbled past me to the basket. I appreciated the coaches’ ability to keep their eye-rolling to a minimum.

The next day, the head coach posted a list of the 30 or so players that had not yet been cut. Needless to say, my name was not on that list. At the time, I thought this was a great injustice; “they’re just going to cut me instead of teaching me to play basketball?” I remembered the feeling from grade school of not being picked at all for schoolyard games, only this time it was adults letting me know I wasn’t good enough. This being the first real sports team I had tried out for, I didn’t fully grasp that the purpose was to pick the best players and teach them how to win against other schools. This was serious business in Kentucky, a state which has only one boys’ and one girls’ state champion each year (the plot to Hoosiers occasionally plays out in Kentucky.) 

Given that nearly every boy in the class had tried out, and nearly all were cut, an intramural basketball league was formed, with some very nice teachers giving their own time to “coach”. Coaching in this context simply meant being sure every boy got a chance to play in each game, and with only three teams there were a lot of us on the bench. The games themselves were unorganized free-for-alls, but I got a couple of rebounds and shot the ball once or twice, despite my own teammates’ attempts to wrestle the ball away from me. These were low-scoring affairs, usually something like 10 – 8, but my team won the tournament and I received my first blue ribbon for something other than an art contest.

Part of my motivation for getting fit now involved making the basketball team, but I did not try out again until high school. The largest part of my fitness plan motivation remained to lose weight and improve my health. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t very gifted in terms of sports, and unlikely to actually make the basketball team. I briefly considered trying out for football, thinking my extra heft might be an advantage, but my mother refused to let me break my neck playing that foolish game. My father made only a faint hearted attempt to intervene. My parents had grown up during the Great Depression, so they had no time for something as frivolous as sports; if it didn’t put food on the table then what was the point? Ironically, they did later convert to the state religion and become college basketball fans, after my brother and I started regularly watching games on TV.

 

The Jogger

I was a bookworm, so once I decided I needed to get fit I absorbed everything I could find on the topics of diet and exercise. There was no internet in those days, so most of my information came from health and fitness articles in newspapers and magazines, books from the school library, and the occasional fitness segment on the local TV news. One great resource was a weekly newspaper column by an exercise science professor from the University of Louisville.

The first “running boom” was underway in America in the mid-1970s, which brought along a great deal of advice on how to be a “jogger” and all the benefits it would bring. So, naturally, I made jogging a part of my exercise program, with no thought yet of becoming a “runner”. Jogging was just part of a well-balanced routine. I learned that one was never to get out of breath while jogging, but rather one should go at a pace to be able to carry on a conversation. (This is still good advice, in regards to running for health and for ‘easy pace’ training runs.)

Jogging was such a craze that People Magazine ran a feature story on celebrity joggers, including the likes of country singer and actor Jerry Reed, 1945 Miss America Bess Myerson, Batman’s “Penguin”, Burgess Meredith, and even crusty old Senator Strom Thurmond, then age 75 (1). The cover featured 1970s power couple Farrah Fawcett and (Eastern Kentucky alum and Six Million Dollar Man ) Lee Majors in jaunty jogging togs (fig. 1). These celebrities spoke of  jogging as a means to look and feel better, and while the word ‘running’ was used interchangeably with ‘jogging’, the word ‘racing’ never appeared. This information will be useful to you later in my story.

 

Fig 1. Farrah and Lee People Magazine Cover, 1977
Fig 1. Farrah and Lee Looking Jaunty, People  Magazine, 1977

***

As an aside, let me clarify the actual difference between “jogging” and “running”. In the broadest sense, there is none. From a biomechanical standpoint, if you are ambulating on foot, you are either walking or running (or skipping, hopping, or galloping, which most of us don’t do often in adulthood). In walking, one foot remains in contact with the ground at all times, and at one point in the gate cycle both feet are in contact with the ground. When a race walker is disqualified, it is nearly always because he or she was seen multiple times with both feet off the ground at the same time, which is defined as running. The running gait cycle has a “flight” phase in which both feet are off the ground; also, unlike in walking, both feet are never in contact with the ground at the same time.

From a practical standpoint, the difference between jogging and running is in the eye of the beholder. Jogging and “easy paced running” for a given individual are probably conducted at the same pace. The difference, then, is merely one of intention; people that say they are joggers are usually doing it only for health fitness reasons, while people that say they are runners are doing it for something beyond health, usually to prepare for a race or to otherwise improve their running ability. This dichotomy was quite strong in the 1970s, but one very rarely hears people refer to themselves as joggers anymore. It is very well accepted today that if you run, even if you don’t race or run fast, you are a runner.

***

Dynamic Tension and The Exercise Plan

Part of what I had learned in my early study of exercise was the importance of strength training. In addition to the jogging craze, body building had entered the mainstream. Prodded by a comic book advertisement featuring a skinny dude getting sand kicked in his face by a bully (fig 2), I sent away for more information on the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension program (which is apparently still a thing). I found the description of the program seemed kind of silly, and not much in keeping with what I had been reading, so I put it aside. I did first take a good teasing from my Dad and my brother about my apparent Mr. Universe aspirations when they saw the envelope on which Atlas’s brawny 1950s Speedo-clad picture appeared. I was still primarily interested in what strength training could do for my health, my weight loss goal, and possibly my basketball abilities. If I happened to get all muscled up, that would be a bonus. (I wasn’t yet familiar with the difficulty and specificity of muscle hypertrophy training.) I bought a 110-pound plastic coated concrete weight set with a $20 gift certificate I had won in a K-Mart coloring contest (the solid bar from that set is still in my arsenal). My father had purchased several rough hewn wooden benches when a Ponderosa Steak House closed down, so one of those became my weight bench. With these tools and my exercise knowledge in hand, I set about designing my own workout program.

 

Fig 2. Charles Atlas wants to make a man out of you!
Fig 2. Charles Atlas wants to make a real man out of you!

 

I recently found some of the papers on which I had sketched out my program tucked away in a running memorabilia box. The list includes such items as “lift weights” (using the basic exercises described in a booklet that came with the weight set), “jog to the barn and back” (about one mile total, sometimes making multiple trips), “ride bike to end of road” (still amazed my Stingray and I didn’t get crushed on the one lane country road), and “do exercises”, by which I meant static stretching (I became quite a contortionist, a topic for another post), and some P.E. class style calisthenics. By high school I had added jumping rope, and became pretty good at doing cross-overs, single leg hops, and other tricks I had seen fellow Louisvillian Mohammed Ali doing on TV.

I dutifully recorded my weight on 3 x 5 cards and watched it go down a little at a time, which I had read was (quite correctly) the healthy way to do it. I also limited my dates with Little Debbie and her friends, and began seeing more of her neighbors, fruits and veggies. After a while I didn’t miss the sweet treats, but I did have one occasionally. I had read that moderation was the key to good diet, and an occasional indulgence is fine, which is as true today as it was then. And while I didn’t crave those snacks, I still liked them. With all the fad diets I have seen come and go and come again over the last 40 years, I realize that having learned this dietary wisdom early on prevented a lot of heartache and yo-yo dieting.

 

A Little More Bad Basketball

I had kept to my new healthy lifestyle through middle school, and continued playing lunch time softball and bad gravel driveway basketball. While I was fitter, I was still a bit chubby when I entered high school, and I had not specifically trained for basketball. I was about average in height for my age and had, probably, an 8-inch vertical leap at best (indicating very little fast twitch muscle fiber, I now know), so not exactly the raw tools for basketball stardom. But you know me; I went out for the basketball team anyway, having decided once again that the path to Nirvana passed through a high school championship, and then either the Kentucky Wildcats or Louisville Cardinals. My high school did win the state championship that year, and had a player win a scholarship to Kentucky, but of course I was not on the team. My freshman basketball team tryout went pretty much the same as 7th grade tryouts, with the exasperated coach calling time on my dribbling stalemate with another not very talented player. A student sitting in the nearby bleachers, there to volunteer as team manager in order to get a varsity jacket, no doubt, smirked, shook his head and asked me why I had even tried out. “Why are you just sitting there”, I replied as I walked away.

One thing was very different this time, however, for which I am grateful to the coach. At the end of the tryouts, after stating that most of us would not be moving forward in the process, he gave a pep talk reminding us that there was more to life than basketball (a heretical statement if ever one was uttered in the state of Kentucky). He told us that in just a few weeks time, there would also be baseball, golf, tennis, and track & field (and probably that we should study hard and become good citizens or something). He noted that, in particular, the track team usually allowed anyone that came to practice every day to stay on the team. He also indicated that many of the events didn’t require the types of skills one would need for basketball, a polite way of saying we uncoordinated kids could probably at least run without falling down too much.

 

The Runner

After the pep talk from the basketball coach, I gave up the hoop dreams and decided to join the school track team. I approached the first day of practice with great trepidation. I had never been on a real sports team before, and in my mind all coaches were mean Army drill sergeants that yelled and made you drop and give them twenty. It didn’t help that my brother was also on the team, and had been for a couple of years. He inherited any athletic skills that were to be had in our family, and I sensed he might not want his “tag along” little brother embarrassing him at practice. Whether that was true or not, it was in my mind, along with the idea that the other kids were going to think I didn’t belong on the team.

But that first day I put on my jock strap, my P.E. uniform, and my Sears The Winner™  jogging shoes (fig 3) and went nervously to the track. (Those were some really terrible, rock hard, stiff shoes, by the way, and helped me learn all about “shin splints”.) I had reasoned I was already jogging several miles per week, so I wasn’t completely out of my element. I also remembered having watched the ‘76 Olympics, and thinking that distance running thing didn’t look too hard. It surely didn’t require much agility or coordination, as the basketball coach had insinuated. In addition, as a kid with chubby thighs, I was amazed you could see the runners’ sinewy leg muscles. I decided I wanted legs like that, not like those of Charles Atlas. Of course I had no idea just how fast those runners were moving or how much training they did. I had been learning about exercise and jogging for health and fitness, not for competition.

 

Fig 3. Sears The Winner™ jogging shoes, circa 1977. Mine were a spiffy green and yellow.
Fig 3. Sears The Winner™ jogging shoes, circa 1977. Mine were a spiffy green and yellow.

 

Believe it or not, I briefly gave thought to throwing the shot that first day, using the same faulty logic as I did for middle school football; that my extra weight would be useful. After all, shot putters were really big, and most of them looked pretty fat. But once I saw the older guys throwing I knew that would be folly for me; I had neither the strength nor agility to do more than drop the shot on my foot. The coach was experienced and knew better anyway. He sized me up and did what coaches do with most kids with no signs of sprint speed or the agility needed for field events; he put me in the mile. I assume this was because the race was long enough for the non-sprinters to have a chance, while being short enough that the slow pokes wouldn’t hold up the track meet’s rolling schedule too much. After a couple of weeks of practice, with me falling behind on every training run, I was allowed to run the junior varsity mile in our first home meet. This was an over-crowded affair, with all the kids that had yet to quit their respective teams piled into one massive heat. I was nervous but ready, because I had read all that literature on jogging. The gun went off and … 

 

The Revelation

I finished last in every race that first season, and was actually lapped by most of the field  during each of these four lap events. It wasn’t until the end of the season that I realized I was supposed to run as fast as I could. As ridiculous as that sounds, I had read so many books and articles about proper “jogging for health”, I thought the guys running all out and getting out of breath were “doing it wrong”. I was still kind of a weird kid.

At a practice just before the last meet of the season, one of my sprinter friends asked me to run some of his 220 yard (half lap) repeat sprints with him. I doubt he thought I would be of much help with his pacing, but he had come to practice late and didn’t want to do his workout alone. I was nearly finished with my assigned workout, so I agreed. I still don’t know what triggered this response, but somehow when he took off I decided to stay right on his shoulder most of the way. I mentally locked on to him and let him “pull” me around the curve and down the home stretch. I did a few of the sprints with him and managed to run them all just a few seconds behind him, and this was a sprinter. Not that he was running all out, but still, a sprinter! This was the first time since that relay race in grade school, the one in which I was shed of the orthopedic shoes, that I understood what it was to run as fast as I could. It hurt, but in a good way. During one of those sprints the epiphany hit; “I’m supposed to be running the mile like this, at the fastest pace I can for that distance!” I wasn’t just jogging for health anymore; I was a runner.

While I would like to tell you I tore up my final mile race of the season, the truth is I was over a hill behind the track helping with a field event and did not hear the calls for my race. I looked up at the track and saw my race was underway and my heart sank. I had blown my chance at redemption. That was the end of my freshman track season; three last place finishes and a DNS (did not start).

The next opportunity I had to try out my new strategy was in P.E. class. We were doing a module on track and field, and while I was pretty bad at most of the events we had to try – falling over hurdles, tossing the discus into the cage, long jumping short of the sand pit – the final event was the mile run. It was my opportunity to finally see how fast I could go. I did not record my time for any of my mile races, and I’m not sure I even knew that was done or what a good time would be. The best I can estimate is that, having been lapped by people running anywhere from under 5 minutes to about 6 minutes, I probably ran 9 or 10 minutes at best.

The P.E. class mile was perhaps the most dreaded activity of the entire school year for nearly every freshman, but of course I was ready to show everyone what a member of the track team could do. The mile was my specialty, you know. It didn’t hurt that the teacher was also the girls’ track coach, so it was my chance to show her that what she had seen out of me at our meets was no longer the runner I had become. It was a chance to undo some of the embarrassment I now felt over my athletic naivety. Once we were underway several boys took off like it was the 100 yard dash. These boys flamed out by the end of the first lap. Most of the other students quickly became red-faced and began panting for air, and many began walking. I and another member of the track team, a pole-vault specialist and sometimes sprinter, went to the front of the pack in the second lap and pulled away from the few students left that were still focused on running instead of puking. This pace hurt, and my legs were burning over the last lap and a half, but I realized this is what it’s like to race the mile. My pole-vaulter friend beat me to the line, but finishing a close second to a very good athlete was no shame, and certainly better than getting lapped. I don’t exactly remember my time, but I think it was around 6 minutes or 6:15, and considering nearly all my training had been at “jogging” pace, that wasn’t too bad.

Despite the minor redemption of the P.E. class mile, I was still peeved about missing the last race of my freshman track season. I remember the emotions that welled up the day of the last meet as I realized I had missed my chance to put my new found knowledge and motivation to the test in front of my coaches and teammates. But I soon realized that I had the entire summer to train for fall cross country season, and I was determined to make the most of it. By this time I was beginning to think that I might be better at longer distances, and cross country races were 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).

The fuse was lit.

In the next post, I will continue the amazing true story of my metamorphosis through high school In the meantime, feel free to send me any running questions you would like me to address in future posts.

 

1. Jogging for Joy. Lee Majors, Farrah Fawcett and Other Stars (Huff, Pant) Are Latching (Wheeze) Onto the Great American Joggernaut. People Magazine, July 4, 1977, Vol 8, No 1.

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part I – The Weird Kid

Fig 2. Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning national coloring contest.

 

 

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Today’s post contains the first part of the story of how an awkward, uncoordinated, sedentary, overweight, slowest kid in his class became a collegiate cross country and track athlete, and beyond. The moral of the story is, “if this kid can do it, you can do it”, or perhaps, “don’t let fear and a lack of talent keep you from trying things”.

In the near future I will write more about running science, but first I hope sharing my story provides some motivation, especially for those contemplating taking that first step out the door.

 

Orthopedic Shoes, Coloring Contests, and Ding Dongs

In my early grade school years, I was put into just what every child wants; clunky, stiff “Thomas heel” orthopedic shoes (fig. 1). The intention was to correct my flat feet and duck-walk gait. I don’t know if it was the shoes, my poor coordination, or both, but I sprained my ankles frequently, so I usually had a slight limp. I was later fitted for some super cool over-sized plastic framed glasses, which perpetually slid down my nose. Metal-framed glasses were in vogue at the time, but my mother knew I would just break those (by 6th grade she relented). Debonair I was not.

 

Fig 1. These are similar to the Thomas heel orthopedic shoes I wore. (Photo courtesy M.J. Markell Shoe Co., Yonkers, NY).
Fig 1. Thomas heel orthopedic shoes. I wore these from preschool through 3rd grade. (Photo courtesy M.J. Markell Shoe Co., Yonkers, NY).

 

The regular hobbies of my youth included reading, drawing, arts & crafts, fishing, and competing in the Sunday Cappy Dick newspaper cartoon coloring contest (fig. 2). I also watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Nutty Buddies, and other treats. The combination of too much sedentary play time and too many dates with Little Debbie resulted in my becoming quite fat early in life, and sometimes enduring taunts of “fatso” from other kids. I suffered the indignity of wearing euphemistically labeled “husky” sized clothing, and I tended to outgrow them quickly. My older brother sometimes got the bum deal of having to wear my JC Penney “hand-me-ups”, which fit in the waist but not in the length. This did come in handy for him during rain storms. You’re welcome, big brother.

 

It should come as no surprise that the husky, klutzy kid with the orthopedic shoes and thick glasses was picked last for every schoolyard game, usually kickball, tag, or shuttle relay races. Illustrative of my social awkwardness, I didn’t even realize that I had been picked last; since no one ever called my name I just dejectedly concluded that they didn’t want me to play at all. Somehow, the default nature of the last one left going to the team with the last pick had eluded me. Eventually, I became upset enough at this perceived slight that I just put myself on one of the teams. About half the time that team would, of course, tell me to go to the other team. It took me a while to put the clues together.

 

Fig 2. Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning national coloring contest.
Fig 2. Husky Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning a national coloring contest.

 

The Relay Race, Softball, and an Amazing Discovery

The relay races were especially difficult in the orthopedic shoes, which were ridged, heavy, and made the distinctive clopping sound of a herd of Clydesdales. One day, perhaps because the orthopedic shoes were muddy, or perhaps because I begged mercilessly, my mother let me wear a pair of my brother’s gum-soled suede leather chukkas to school. They were a little too big, but oh so comfortable and flexible. I rarely got into trouble at school (I saved my little hellion routine for home), so I was mortified when the teacher scolded me for putting my feet on the wall. She had no idea I was simply marveling at the lack of orthopedic-ness of the shoes, which seemed magical to me. Later at recess, it was relay race time and I was anxious to see what I could do in these magic shoes. Before that day, my relay leg always went one of three ways; my team was behind and I got us further behind, my team was even and I got us behind, or my team was ahead and I got us behind, all while my teammates loudly scolded me for being so slow. This day would be different. When my teammate slapped my hand both teams were dead even, and I took off running as hard as I could. For the first time ever, I ran side-by-side with the other kid all the way to the next exchange, all the while my amazed teammates cheering wildly. That was the first time I felt the rush of running fast, and of being competitive in something physical. A seed was planted, but it would be a few years before it sprouted. 

 

Before my fourth grade year, my father decided that Green Acres was the place to be, so we moved from the suburbs of Louisville to a small farm in a neighboring county. The rural public school was 25 miles and a world apart from the suburban parochial school I had attended, and it took me a while to adjust. One of the adjustments was the realization that these kids had never heard of kickball or relay races, and instead spent recess playing an exotic game called “softball”. That first year I either went to the playground equipment or just sat and watched the others play the game, since I didn’t know what was going on. But the next year I decided to try it, and while I never learned to hit very well, I did learn to catch the ball (and then toss it to some other close-by kid who actually knew where to throw it next). By the middle school years I was playing softball well enough to not be picked last. By that time I was long rid of orthopedic shoes, and was instead wearing “tennis shoes” to school like almost every other boy.  My glasses were still sliding down my nose, though.

Having discovered during middle school that I could enjoy doing something sport-like, and also that girls did not, in fact, have cooties, led to the conclusion that it was time for me to lose the extra weight and get in shape. In the next post, I discuss how I did that, and the unlikely journey to becoming a competitive runner.

 

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Welcome to Sport Science Running and Fitness

Comrades Wall South Africa 2010

 

 

 

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With this brief introduction, and through upcoming posts, I hope to use my story to inspire you to learn more about the wonderful world of running, fitness, and health, and to apply that knowledge to your own story. I will write more about my improbable, and hopefully inspiring, rise from awkward, unathletic, overweight kid to collegiate runner and beyond in upcoming posts.

 

I chose Sport Science Running & Fitness as a title after considering many other ideas, some clever and some more straight forward and descriptive. I settled on the latter because, even though I (attempt to) use humor in my writing, the main focus will be to share insights from my 40 years and counting as a runner, my training in Sport Science, and my experience in exercise physiology, physical rehabilitation, and research. I hope you will be able to put this information to practical use, or at least find it interesting and entertaining.

 

I also plan to write about controversial issues and pseudoscience in an informative and educational manner, that will no doubt result in much wailing and gnashing of teeth among some ‘true believers’ in such things. In the internet age, purveyors of health and nutrition misinformation (usually with a profit motive) have gained wide audiences and do a lot of damage, and are experts at getting their victims to defend them. I will share the work of other science communicators that are dedicated to exposing con artists and quacks. 

 

If you spend any time in running forums, you have also no doubt seen virtual holy wars break out over topics such as ‘the best running shoes’, ‘the best diet’, or the ‘best training plan’, and the rules of the sport. Sometimes these fights even break out over some very silly and trivial issues. Much has changed during my four decades in the sport, and I find we are experiencing some growing pains with the much increased popularity of running. Hopefully I can help bring some sanity to these discussions. After all, running is important to us, but it’s also supposed to be fun.

 

I welcome any ideas you have for blog posts, any suggested corrections for my posts, and any running or fitness related questions. Please keep comments civil and PG-13 rated. Be sure to like the Facebook page, too 

Talk to you soon.

Matt

 

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