A Quora member recently asked this deceptively simple question, “what is a marathon?”. Just what constitutes “a marathon” is a source of confusion for many runners new to the sport as well as for people not involved in the sport. Below is my attempt to explain the issues and hopefully resolve the confusion. Enjoy!
Within the sport of Track & Field (Athletics for all you non-Americans) a marathon is a foot race of the standard distance of 26 miles, 385 yards. The story behind the odd distance has to do with the 1908 Olympic marathon finish line placement, which made the course come out to that distance. The then governing body of the sport later adopted this distance for all marathons and it has been so since. Had the Games not been moved to London for 1908, the marathon distance probably would have eventually been standardized at 40k or 25 miles, or possibly left as it was for each race to determine.
But the confusion over ‘what is a marathon’ also stems from the fact that the word marathon, like many words, has more than one definition. We runners and track fans cringe when someone says they ran a “5k marathon”; no, you ran a 5k, not a marathon. However, one of the definitions of ‘marathon’, that long predates the adoption of the official marathon distance in Track & Field, is simply “any long distance running race”. Of course there are other uses of the word ‘marathon’ which are used for any event that requires prolonged endurance of one kind or another, such as a dance marathon, a sales marathon, or even a ‘marathon meeting’ (one that drags on for hours, or seems to).
One could therefore argue that technically, as purely a matter of grammar, a “5k marathon” is not incorrect. But of course since it is a running event, it is incorrect in that context. Personally, while I find it cringe worthy, I try to understand that the person saying it may be a new runner, so any correction should be gentle and constructive rather than of the “OMG, how dumb are you?” variety. We can’t expect people outside of – or brand new to – any field of endeavor to know its nomenclature and culture.
From what I have witnessed, actual race directors using terms like “10k marathon” to describe a race is more common in some parts of the world than others. I could be wrong, but this seems to be a fairly common practice in some Asian countries. In the US, you really only see it used by people putting on a race if they are having a charity fundraiser “5k Marathon”. Most serious runners know to stay away from these events, since they are probably not being conducted by someone who knows much about running as a sport, so there are often numerous problems (e.g., improperly marked and/or measured course, untrained volunteers, no traffic control, incorrect results, etc.)
I’m not sure if my answer directly relates to the reason the question was asked, but the subject comes up often enough that I hope my response is instructive to others who may be confused about the use of the word marathon.
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.
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.
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.”
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]
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Update: Ask about charter member fees! Save up to $1200 a year!
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