Reader Question: Is it possible to run 13 miles in 30 minutes like Captain America did?

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I love superhero movies, but in order to enjoy them I have to suspend disbelief and stop being a scientist for a couple of hours, since most of what you see defies the laws of physics and well established physiological principles.

What the Ol’ Cap did was a physiological impossibility outside of the superhero movie universe. The runner would be going about world class 100m sprint speed (26 mph). That pace relies on energy primarily from phosphocreatine – essentially a “rocket fuel” with about 6 seconds “burn time” before it is depleted – plus energy liberated via anaerobic (without oxygen) processes. The longer the event, the more the ratio turns from anaerobic to aerobic energy sources. One simply can’t use aerobic metabolism to run 26 mph for virtually any length of time, let alone 30 minutes. 

There are interesting questions like this in exercise physiology meant to spur investigation and discussion of the limits of human performance. For decades people have tried to come up with the ‘absolute limit’ for a given event, and so far they have been eventually proved wrong. Long ago there was the sub-4 minute mile barrier, but as we got into, say, the 1930s it was becoming obvious to most people that it was humanly possible to run that fast and it was just a matter of time. (Roger Bannister ran under 4 in 1954 – after about a 10 year period of a few people getting close, like 4:01 – 4:02.)

Later there were calculations that no man could go faster than (I’m working from memory here so not an exact figure) ~ 3:50-something, until that was broken. The current world record, set in 1999, is held by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj at 3:43.13. Of course we can say with certainty that no human will run a mile in 1 minute, or 2 minutes, or … well, we just don’t know for sure other than there is obviously a limit. El Guerrouj also holds the the 1500m WR of 3:26, which equates to about a mile of …. 3:43. So is the limit 3:43? Probably not; even though that record has stood for 17 years, it always seems someone could go 1/10 second faster, or at least 1/100. Is a sub 3:40 possible? I wouldn’t bet against it.

What is the fastest a human could run 13 miles? We don’t know (the world record for the half marathon – 13.11 miles – is 58:23) but it certainly isn’t anywhere close to 30 minutes. A 30 minute half marathon would be run at an average pace of 2:17 per mile, and equates to a 2:05 mile in quality.

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Reader Question: How do I train for my first ultra marathon?

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That’s another of an infinite number of training questions for which the answer is “it depends”.

What does it depend on? (1) It depends on your current level of fitness; (2) it depends on what the distance of the ultra will be, (3) it depends on what type of course it will be run on (flat road, flat trail, hilly road or trail, mountain, high elevation, etc).

By definition, an ultramarathon is any distance longer than a standard 26.2 mile marathon, but in practical terms 50K is usually considered the standard entry level distance. Training for a 50K (31 miles) is quite a different proposition from training for a 100 mile or longer ultra. I highly discourage anyone from jumping into a 100 mile or longer race as their first ultra. (Occasionally an overly enthusiastic but sedentary sort will decide a “couch to ultramarathon” plan is a good idea; it isn’t, in a drunken “hey, Bubba, watch me jump off the barn into the kiddie pool!” kind of way.)

I’m going to assume you are the smart sort and aren’t planning to run anything longer than a 50K as your first ultra (or jump off the barn), since that is most common and makes the most sense. It allows you get a feel for the logistics (hydration, eating, footwear and other gear) and the ethos and unspoken rules of the ultra community without spending two days in the woods fooling with broken headlamps, nausea, blisters, hallucinations, and other super fun things.

I’m also going to assume you have run a few marathons and/or have been regularly running at least 30 -40 miles per week for most weeks of the last few years (i.e., you are in good shape to start with, and could finish a marathon distance run right now or with minimal further training).

I will further assume you know that your best bet for a pleasant first 50K will be to find a race that is not on super technical trails (bad footing and such) and not run in the mountains at high elevation. (I’ve only run a handful of ultras, mostly 50Ks, with a fairly flat Florida trail result of 5:15, and a mountain race in New Mexico all above 9000 ft altitude, with a climb up to 11,300 ft, in well over 8 hours. The latter was much tougher than a 50 Mile run I did in Florida (but with a bit less sand in my shoes). It was a great adventure, but I had a handful of longer races – and lots of time running mountain trails – under my belt before I did that one. (I was ill and injured the previous year and dropped out half way while coughing my lungs out; had I gone on I could have had serious health problems on the climb to the peak – people do die in the mountains when they do dumb things.)

So check the ultra race listings and read the course descriptions and reviews to find a ‘first timer’ friendly race. Most are run on trails, but a few are on pavement. I suggest you’ll have a better time on the trails, as long as you can train on trails.

So let’s assume you are more or less ‘marathon fit, and you are going to do a relatively non-technical trail 50K. There’s not really much of a secret here; if you have had success with a marathon training program, your 50K training won’t look all that much different (still, hiring a coach makes things much easier – they think, you run). Again, this is assuming you picked a ‘beginner friendly’ type of 50K – training for a tougher 50K will diverge a lot more from marathon training.

I submit you could use a marathon plan to prep for the 50K and get to the finish line. But you will feel better and be more confident about putting in those extra ~ 5 miles if you modify the marathon plan to increase the length of a few of the long runs, and simply put in more “time on your feet” as they say.

There is debate among ultra runners as to the utility of many of the types of training runs used for marathon and shorter race training, such as “threshold” runs (to improve anaerobic threshold), “intervals” (to improve maximal endurance, i.e. VO2max), and “repetitions” (to improve raw speed). I come down on the side of including threshold (aka tempo) runs at least, even though you will likely never run anything faster than your usual “easy run” pace in the ultra. Being more fit translates to the easy pace being, literally, easier – less effort to run the same pace. Just as for marathon and shorter training, I recommend running a handful of strides after a couple of easy runs each week to keep a bit of speed in the legs and to improve running form.

Others disagree and have had a lot of success doing lots of miles and training as close as possible on the type of terrain they will race on. The truth is there are multiple ways to reach the same ultra goal, so a lot depends on what you are comfortable with and what gives you the most confidence that you can finish in a vertical posture.

A good book to consider is called Relentless Forward Progress. It discusses many of the topics I’ve covered, and a lot more, and includes a lot of advice and opinions from experienced ultra runners. It has sample training plans, too.

I’ve never been very keen on the marathon for myself, and found myself in agreement with many others that a 50K with friends in the woods felt much easier than any road marathon. Chose your race well, train properly, stay off the roof and you likely will have a great time.

Good luck!

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Reader Question: What can I do to improve my 100m dash time?

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What can I do to improve my 100m dash time?

I am about to finish my freshman year of high school, and I want to be winning varsity races by the time I’m a sophomore. My personal best this year for the 100m is 11.57, but I want to be running high tens by grade 10. My track coach currently is terrible and only made me slower. Any suggestions?

That’s a tough situation to be in; perhaps a talk with your coach about why you think the training isn’t working for you is in order. I can’t know the specifics, but often high schools take any sport that isn’t football or basketball (and maybe baseball) much less seriously – as if they are just conditioning for other sports or purely recreational. In those cases I’ve seen the track coach be appointed not because he or she is a great track coach, but because he or she is a good football or basketball coach. But that should not be an excuse for that coach, who supposedly understands something about exercise physiology, not to get up to speed on the techniques of coaching track & field events.

One of the main factors for sprint training that might be missed by some coaches is the proper work to rest ratio. For a 100/200m runner, you want a training session of multiple short, fast sprints followed by very long recovery periods in between, often a 1:12 to 1:20 work to rest ratio, based on time ( e.g. an 8- 10s sprint followed by a 2 – 3 min rest) during which you walk and recuperate (and maybe do a few flexibility moves) so you are ready to be able to give a full effort on the next and all subsequent sprints. As a distance runner it pains me to say this, but to be a good short sprinter you have to mostly avoid endurance training, which has the effect of teaching some of your fast twitch muscle fibers to behave more like slow twitch (a positive for a marathoner, but a negative for a sprinter or power athlete). Carl Lewis wrote about rebelling against his high school coach who wanted him and the other sprinters running lots of laps, because he knew this would not be good for his speed. I remember watching Carl on a TV show called Superstars in which the contestants were jocks from different sports; during the 800m race sure enough, sub-10 second 100m runner Carl was really struggling on the second lap. It is okay to run a few easy laps as part of your warm-up, though; you want your muscles warm before you start sprinting. The bulk of the warm-up should still be various drills and range of motion exercises that follow the jogging.

If the coach really isn’t going to help you much after trying your best to communicate, the alternative could be (with the coach’s permission) to hire a personal coach to write your workouts. In the offseason there should be no problem working directly with a personal coach. (Ask around, and also look on the internet; http://coachup.com is one resource). There are also various commercial ‘speed schools’ and performance training centers you could look into. The main thing you would focus on is building your strength and power in the offseason, so they would show you safe and proper form for weight training and plyometric drills. They would also at some point do more direct work to help you translate that power into a faster start out of the blocks and on into the rest of the phases of the sprint, using good running form.

Of course this is going to cost some money, so that will factor into your and your parents’ decisions. Still, it isn’t something that is easy to do properly on your own, and the chances of injury in a do-it-yourself program are pretty high. But as a learning tool, you might pick up a copy of a book called Explosive Running by Michael Yessis.

On a positive, 11.57 is a good time for a freshman, especially since you might not have received the best coaching, and physical maturity alone is going to help you improve on that. Be patient, train consistently, and the speed will come out. Make sure you have both short term goals (as you stated in your question) and longer term goals (in the back of your mind) to motivate you, such as where you want to be your senior year and if you want to run in college.

Good luck!

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Reader Question: Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

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A quora user asks:  Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

NOVA had a great documentary a few years ago which followed several ‘novice’ marathoners through their training programs. Marathon Challenge — NOVA | PBS

(It looks like you can also find the full documentary on Youtube.)

It’s been a while since I watched it, but I recall that only one of the participants lost any substantial weight, and that was because she was purposely trying to lose weight. That meant she was being careful to watch her caloric intake and was doing a lot of supplemental exercise that the other runners were not doing. Some of the runners were surprised they hadn’t lost much or any weight, but as Bruno said, losing weight is hard even for runners.

You have to run a lot for it to affect your weight; for example, world class marathoners will put in sometimes 120 – 160 miles per week of running, along with strength training, cross training, and flexibility work. At that level, it becomes difficult for most people to maintain a healthy weight, that is, not lose too much weight. Very few people can withstand that kind of training. Contrast that with what ‘mere mortals’ do; novice marathoners usually run from 3 to 5 times per week, averaging 25 – 40 miles per week, and may or may not do some cross training and other exercise. Intermediate marathoners might do 40 – 60 miles per week, and more advanced but still not elite marathoners might do 50 – 70 at most (all gross generalizations, but about average). Most then go back to their sedentary jobs in an air conditioned office. As exercise science and obesity expert Steven Blair, himself a fit but somewhat rotund gentleman, has said, we evolved using a lot of energy to survive, but in modern society we no longer have to work hard physically to obtain our food and shelter. Instead we try to “graft on” a bit of artificial (non survival related) physical activity which we call exercise to try to stay healthy. If you think about it, most runners are sedentary 22 – 23 hours per day. That was a luxury our ancestors could not afford.

It just takes A LOT of physical activity to lose weight, which is why it is important to reduce calories in an intelligent manner; one that doesn’t result in lower metabolic rate, which is difficult to do while training. I recommend the book Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald for runners who could benefit by losing a few pounds in a sensible manner. Dropping weight by cutting too many calories too quickly will only lead to reduced ability to train, and possible injury, which defeats the purpose.

Keep in mind also, that a lot of those ‘overweight’ marathoners you see have lost a substantial amount of weight as part of adopting a healthy lifestyle, for which running is only one part. Some will have leveled off and some are still losing weight, but nearly all are generally more healthy than the majority of “normal weight”  sedentary people. It is more important to concentrate on health and fitness than weight loss per se when setting goals to improve one’s health and well-being.

Another factor is that marathons have become both more popular and less “elite” over the last couple of decades. The latter means that many races have extended the cut-off time for completing the course to 6, 7, 8 or more hours, which gives a lot more people time to finish. A few decades back when only a few hearty souls, nearly all men, ran marathons the cut-off might have been 4 hours, which today is faster than more than half of all marathon participants run. (For perspective, the world record for men is under 2:03 and for women is about 2:15.) The great thing about running is how inclusive it has become, and that fact that the elites cheer for and support the back of the pack runners. It’s a wonderful thing.

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Reader Question: How can I stop ankle tightness when running?

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A reader on Quora asks: How can I stop ankle tightness when running? When I run my ankles get so tight or numb, not sure what the issue is but it makes me slap my feet on the ground. It prevents me from going long distance; any suggestions or ideas on how to fix this?  (Also, shoe suggestions/sizing.) 

 

I’m having trouble picturing what you mean; is it your achilles tendon (heel cord) that is tight, or is it the inside, or outside, of your ankle, or all around? The fact that you say they get numb is a bit concerning and makes me think that you should consult a medical expert. That could be a sign of something more serious, like a nerve impingement or a circulatory problem. As is often the case on Quora, there isn’t enough room for you to give all the details, such as how long you have been running, how much you run, how much you weigh, your previous injuries, your age and your gender. I also don’t know what kind of surface(s) you are running on, e.g. concrete sidewalks, technical/uneven off road trails, nice smooth soft dirt paths, slanted road shoulders; what other training or sports you participate in, or what kind of shoes your are running in. It could be as simple as you are trying to ramp up your mileage too fast and not allowing your ankles time to adapt. With so little to go on, there is no way to know unless you get it checked out; there are just too many variables to assess. 

They aren’t always easy to find, but your best bet would be to locate a physical therapist who is an expert in running biomechanics. In addition to a thorough medical history and an examination of the related musculoskeletal system, he or she will probably video record you from different angles running on a treadmill to look for clues (bring your running clothes and shoes to the appointment) and conduct a functional movement screen. With a good idea of any muscle imbalances in strength and flexibility (keep in mind it could be caused by an issue further up the kinetic chain, such as hip/glute weakness) and your running mechanics, the PT can design a plan to correct the problem, which will usually include exercises for strength and flexibility and potentially some other interventions.

If the PT does think it could be something other than a simple musculoskeletal issue they would refer you to a physician. Of course if you want peace of mind you could start with the physician and then go to a PT if you get an all clear. 

As far as footwear, research shows that different types of running shoes really don’t affect injury rates; that is, in studies where one group gets running shoes based on an assessment of their ‘pronation factor’ and another is assigned shoe type randomly, the injury rates are about the same. For years, running shoes have been classified as ‘stability’ ‘motion control’ or ‘neutral’, but with this newer information many shoe companies are moving away from those categories. 

What has been found to affect injury rate is the comfort and fit of the shoe to the person, which means you should go to a running shop and try on several models and run in them at the store (most now have a treadmill you can run on; many years ago the shop I worked in allowed you to run up and down the sidewalk). You will want about a “thumbnail’s width” of room between your longest toe and the end of the shoe, and the width should feel good – the shoe should be about the same width as your foot rather than your foot spilling over the sides or sliding right to left, and it should be snug but not overly tight in the heel. There are different ways to lace shoes to improve the fit, and you can ask the folks at the running shop about that. 

Another thing you will notice is that some shoes are easy to flex, others are quite stiff, and most are somewhere in-between. Also, some have a lot of cushioning, some a moderate amount, and some practically none. There are more running shoes on the market now than ever before, and it seems new shoe companies pop up every month. The variety is generally a good thing, but it can be overwhelming having so many choices. You will have to decide which feels the best by trying them, and again a running shop will take the time to help you narrow your choices. 

Once you have your new shoes, it is still possible that they won’t feel as good after a few miles of “real” running as they did on the treadmill in the store, so see if they have an exchange policy in case that happens. Give them a fair trial, but if you feel like they aren’t working for you then you’ll want to try something else. It is just kind of a trial and error system. Once you find the type of shoe that works for you it becomes much easier from then on to find the right shoes. 

One other thought; you didn’t say what kind of shoes you are running in now, but if you are using something like basketball or tennis shoes, that might explain some of the problem with the foot slapping you describe. Otherwise, I think the PT and a gait analysis will help figure out and fix the ‘hitch in your giddyup’. 

So, in summary it could be one or a combination of (1) a more serious medical issue, (2) doing too much,too soon, (3) weakness/tightness in the feet and/or ankles and/or lower leg muscles, (4) weakness/tightness further up the kinetic chain (quads, hamstrings, abductors, adductors, internal & external rotators, hips, glutes, “core” muscles, etc), (5) the surface/slant you run on, (6) improper footwear.

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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

 

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Reader Question: Are there any etiquette rules for running a 5k?

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Are there any etiquette rules for running a 5k?

This is a great question, and shows that you are a caring person in my opinion; otherwise you’d just go all ‘bull in a china shop’. 😉

“Common sense” goes a long way, but some runners who are inexperienced at participating in races might not think about certain points of etiquette. Given the popularity of ‘couch to 5K’ training programs (i.e. training programs that encourage sedentary or non-runners to take up the challenge of getting ready for their first 5K (3.1 mile) ‘fun run’ race, there are many first timers at most 5Ks. 

I will approach this answer from the standpoint of a first time, or fairly new, runner. Most of this will generally apply to whatever distance race you run, by the way.

Getting there.  Get to the race at least an hour before the start, and even a bit earlier if you are picking up your race packet (your number) on race day. This keeps the stress level down for you, and for the volunteers who have to scramble to get everyone checked in as race time approaches. Understand that most of the time races do start almost right at the stated time, with or without you. Don’t show up at 8:45 for a 9am start, in other words. You need time to get your number, pin it on, use the world famous port-o-potties (there will be a long line), snug up and double tie your shoelaces, and find your spot in the starting area.

Bib number. Pin your race number to the FRONT of your shirt (or shorts) so that it is clearly visible to race staff. It’s not the Olympics, so you don’t get a front and a back number. Also, some races still use the tear-off tag on the bottom of the number for recording finish place and time, so DON’T REMOVE THE TAG from the bib number, and do not put a safety pin through the tear-off tag itself. If they are using this system, be ready to give the volunteer at the finish line your tear-off tag quickly so that they can get to the next person behind you and keep the finish area from getting clogged up. (Most larger races now use timing chips, but small fun runs often use the tear-off tag or another low-tech system.) If your race uses a timing chip, make sure you follow the instructions for using it – some are built right into the number, but some have to be attached to your shoe laces.

Lining up. Be sure you have a decent understanding of how fast you will run, and line up in the starting corral accordingly. For example, if you have been running blazing fast times in your workouts and think you might finish in the top 10, then line up on the front row with the other speedsters. But if you have been doing a run/walk program and are not yet quite able to run the full distance, line up towards the back of the pack at the starting area. If you are somewhere in-between, then of course line up somewhere in the middle. (Gigantic races will usually seed you, so you line up where they tell you to; most smaller runs count on the runners to understand where they should start.) The smaller the race, the less critical this issue is, but you still don’t want to be up front if you aren’t ready to get swept up in a really fast start. It’s dangerous for you and the other runners if you get tripped up and fall. The start of a 5K can be pretty chaotic for a minute or two with all the kids that don’t know any better sprinting out ahead of everyone and then slowing down, and the real front runners dodging them and each other; you don’t want to be in that mess if you aren’t ready for it.

During the race. Just have fun and run your own race if it’s your first one. In a 5K there may or may not be a water station on the course (usually there is one at the half way point). If there is one, and you think you need water, how you approach it depends on where you are in the race; if you are up with the speedier overall or age-groupers, most won’t get water at all but those that do will not slow down to do so. They will just grab the cup, pinch the top to make a spout, and then pour most of it down the front of their shirt (not on purpose). If you are with the mellower paced crowd, you can usually just pick up a cup, thank the volunteers, drink it and put the cup in the trash can if there is one. (You’ll see a lot of littered cups on the ground, which the volunteers will pick up. This practice is pretty accepted in road races, but not in trail races, fyi. On the trail, you hang on to your trash until you find a trash can.)

Anyway, the main point of etiquette here is not to impede another runner at the water station (or anywhere else on the course), either by cutting them off or by suddenly stopping in front of them. Plan how you are going to approach the water station (and any walking breaks) and pay attention to what other runners around you are doing – if they are grabbing the cup while running, then you will need to do the same; you can walk if you need to after you get clear of the water station and aren’t in a place where you will be blocking anyone’s progress by walking. It’s like switching lanes while driving; make sure the person behind you isn’t going to rear-end you if you move over and/or stop suddenly. Again, if you are doing a run/walk thing, there shouldn’t be much chaos around the water station. If you are worried about it, and think you’ll be out there long enough to need some water, you can always just carry a bottle with you. Also, if you wear headphones, keep the volume low (or keep one earbud out) so that you can hear other runners. In my opinion, especially in a first race, it’s best not to use them at all. You don’t need the extra distraction.

At the finish line. Pretty much already covered above. If they are using a chip system, you might have to stop and give back the chip. Most use disposable chips now, though, which is the simplest of all. You just cross the finish line, do a cartwheel (if you want) and go get some post race bagels and bananas. Follow the instructions from the volunteers at the finish and all will go smoothly. Usually you can find out what scoring system they are using before you even start the race. In any case, just don’t hang around right at the finish line so there is room for others to cross the line.

That was kind of long, but in summary (1) get there early, (2) pin number to the front and, if used, make sure you have the timing chip, (3) line up in the right spot, (4) pay attention and don’t stop suddenly or cut off other runners, and (5) follow the instructions at the finish line. Also, be sure to thank the volunteers. Pretty simple, really.

Have a great race!

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Reader Question: How could I improve my weight and endurance?

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I’m a runner. How could I improve my weight and endurance?

I’m 34 years old and running 50 miles per week; I’m training for my next marathon and my weight is 52 kg (117 pounds approx ) and my Fat index is 4.3% (athletic measure option), 10.5% (normal measure option). [asked on Quora]

 

I’m not sure what you mean by “improve my weight”. Most of the time when people say that, they mean they want to lose weight, but at 117 lbs with low body fat, I don’t think that is what you are asking.

You don’t say how tall you are or what gender; I’m assuming you are male with a body fat percentage that low; if you are female then you have a whole other conversation about healthy body fat percentage you need to have with your doctor and perhaps a registered dietitian. 

 

Either way, you could benefit from getting a more accurate estimate of your body composition (I’m assuming you used bioelectrical impedance or a similar consumer grade device). You can have this done at most university exercise physiology labs for a small fee.

This would give you a better idea if you have any room to drop a little bit of weight to improve your performance; keep in mind that about 4% is essential body fat for a man. Go lower than that and you will be sick and hurt; even at 4 – 5% you might have problems, but it is an individual thing. Some thin runners perform better by gaining a bit of weight (eating more) because they have more energy to put into their training and recovery. If you find you are 10% or higher, you could consider bringing it down slightly (again, if male). With the wide estimate range you have now, I don’t recommend trying to lose any weight. A female with body fat in that range would almost assuredly perform better by eating more and increasing body fat.

Improving endurance is a matter of proper training. For most non-elite runners, 50 mpw is a good amount given all the other demands of life. If you can swing it, at some point in your training you can try some higher mileage weeks in which you reduce intensity. For example, go up to 60 – 70 miles every few weeks, but cut back on the tempo, reps, or intervals you would have done that week. That’s pretty general; best thing to do is find a good training plan that fits your current fitness level and the amount of time you have until the marathon. You improve endurance and speed-endurance (ability to hold a “fast” pace) with a proper combination of running volume and intensity – more miles plus tempo, interval, and rep work at the right pace, etc. 

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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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Race Report: Revenge of the Sand! King of the Hill Trail Run

Did I mention there was sand? There was sand.

 

 

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******

10K,  Los Lunas New Mexico, March 12, 2016

Since moving to New Mexico from Florida three years ago, I’ve found that I rarely get more than a few grains of sand in my trail running shoes. I don’t miss it. Most of my Florida trail runs ended with me pouring sand out of my shoes and socks, followed by a good scrubbing of my blackened feet.

 

Dirty Trail Foot, Florida Style
Dirty Trail Foot, Florida Style. Even the cat is disgusted.

 

In Albuquerque I run in the Sandia Mountains several times a week and come home with mostly clean shoes and feet, save for an occasional cactus spine. Today I discovered that when it comes to sand, Florida has nothing on Los Lunas. Unlike Florida trails where you run for a few yards to maybe a half mile in “sugar sand” before hitting more solid turf, about 95% of the King of the Hill course is made of deep sand. There’s also a big hill, as you might guess from the name. Today I learned that running uphill in sand is much less fun than running downhill in sand. I heard several runners comment that the steep downhill section in deep sand was more like downhill skiing than running, and I concur. As long as I hit heel first, I would scoot/skate down the hill.

 

This was the type of course on which you had to pick your battles; take it slow and steady climbing up the steep sandy hills (I hit some 11 minute plus mile splits on those) and let go on the few hard packed sections and sandy downhills. One of the benefits of this type of race is that race time is irrelevant compared to any other course. The best you can do is compare to how everyone else did, unless you ran the course last year (which I did not).

 

The start (and finish) was on a cinder road, which was the best running surface of the course, with rolling hills that led to the trails. Quite a few folks made jackrabbit starts, apparently unaware that saving some energy early on this type of course would pay off later. I went into “stalker mode” right after the gun, knowing that on a tough course many of the folks that go out fast are folks I’m going to see again later (not counting the folks who are clearly faster than me).

 

After reaching the trails and coming to the realization that the course description of “some sand” was rather understated, I simply held as comfortable a pace as I could and waited for things to get better. After climbing the steepest namesake hill, the only section where for me walking was preferable to running, there was more gradual uphill slipping and sliding. My running form – arms flailing, truck twisting – reminded me of someone trying to swim in rough surf; road running is more like swimming in a pool in comparison. It was awkward, but fun to have a different challenge from the norm.

 

The trail was wide enough for vehicles (no single track at all), so my strategy was to run where the tire tracks had hopefully packed down the sand. That really didn’t help, so I found myself crossing back and forth trying to find the most solid ground. After a while I tried landing in the foot prints in front of me, using them like rock climbing hand-holds. I don’t think any of that really helped, other than to give my mind something to do besides focus on how hard I was working just to run that slow. Somewhere past the halfway mark I was relieved to find we were now going downhill and could actually start letting go and racing a little bit.  I was still wind-milling my arms, but at least it was too keep me from going too fast and falling on my face on the downhill sections. I really hope no video was taken, but if there was it should probably be set to a Benny Hill style sound track.

 

Around that time a couple of gentlemen in turn went flying past me with reckless abandon on the downhills. There was of course still a lot of sand, so I calculated I would probably see one or both of them again near the finish. Other than those two, the only other runner near me was the soon to be second place woman, who was handling the course just a bit better than I was (ah, youth). Fairly early on I had caught the folks that went out too fast, so the overall places were just about sorted out. With around 2 or 2 ½ miles to go, we merged with the middle of the 5K race that had started 30 minutes after we had. I managed to weave through the bulk of those folks using a few shouts of “on your left” or “on your right”. Fortunately even those wearing headphones did a good job of letting the 10K runners pass, and having some people to catch helped me keep my focus. If the race grows much larger, however, they might need to rethink the logistics or this merging will cause a logjam.

 

As expected, around the 5 mile mark I caught one of the guys that had passed me earlier, then back on the cinder road with about ¾ mile to go I caught and passed the other guy. There was no use trying to catch the woman in front of me by that point, so I focused instead on passing the few 5K runners headed for the same finish line. By that point in a race this difficult, you just want to run fast so it can be over and you can get some red chili pancakes.

 

I crossed the line in 55:37, 16th overall and 1st in the “Old Geezers” (50-54) age group. For comparison, the winning time was 41:52 by some whippersnapper half my age. Dang kids. Other members of the Dukes TC also won their respective age groups, with Jesse Espinoza (46:54) finishing 5th overall and Ben Willis (48:06) taking 6th. We should probably suggest a team competition for next year, assuming Jesse recovers from his sand trauma by then.

 

Several members of the Albuquerque Road Runners also enjoyed the run, including Kathy Kirsling who won her age group and beat a slew of younger runners. As always, Perky Garcia was at the ready with her trusty instamatic and captured some great photos. Heck, she even got a picture of me (second picture below) not flailing, in addition to the post race photo below. Wendy Wiggins stated off the record that she is not fond of sand running. 

 

Dr. Matt with Age Group Winner Kathy Kirsling, who is proudly displaying the blank side of her medal
Dr. Matt with Age Group Winner Kathy Kirsling, who is proudly displaying the blank side of her medal

 

Did I mention there was sand? There was sand.
Did I mention there was sand? There was sand. Photo by Perky Garcia

 

Age group winners and not, everyone agreed this was one of the toughest 10K (or 5K) races they had ever run, with the word of the day being “sand”. So much sand. I poured about a half pound of it out of each shoe post-race, and it invaded my dreams last night. As I write this, over 24 hours later, my legs are sore and I’ve postponed my Sunday long run until tomorrow (I’ll get a short recovery run in this afternoon). It’s always best to recognize and accept when an adjustment to training is indicated, especially for us old folks who don’t recover as fast as we used too.  

 

Dukes Masters Jesse Espinoza (L) and Dr. Matt
Dukes Masters Jesse Espinoza (L) and Dr. Matt

 

This was the second year for this run, and the organizers and volunteers did a great job. The red chili pancakes were a much appreciated post-race treat, and plenty of other food and water was available. I plan to return, but next time I will be wearing my winterized trail running shoes, a pair of no longer made New Balance MT110s with a neoprene zip-up booty covering. (I had them sitting by the door, but as I was leaving I foolishly thought, “nah, I won’t need those”.) They might be hot, but I think having sweaty feet will be more comfortable than having sand rolling around inside my shoes and causing a blister on my heel. If you don’t have anything like this, I suggest at least using shoe gaiters over the least porous shoes you own. There’s a lot of sand out there; you’ve been warned.

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