Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 13 Jun 2004 08:20:59 -0400

Running Faster, Longer

RUNNING COMMENTARY 523

(This is the introduction to Part Two of my upcoming book, Running Long. The first part appeared in RC 522.)

You can expect to improve for a long time after you start racing. But you can't keep getting better indefinitely.

The improvement clock typically runs for five to 10 years. This is how long you take to adapt to the demands of racing and to learn the game.

You're granted that increased pace and distance no matter your age in the beginning. Start at 15 and you can count on improving into your 20s. Begin at 55 and you still get to improve for the same number of years.

Some lucky runners put more than a decade between their first and best races. But their history usually reveals a prolonged stoppage of the clock (usually for injury), a big jump in effort in the later years or a major shift in emphasis (such as from short track races to long road runs). These runners still get their allotted amount of progress.

Long before realizing that runners operated under such a timetable, it worked invisibly for me. Midway between five and 10 years sits the number 7-1/2, which is almost exactly how long my improvement lasted. Twice, in fact.

My first season of racing came as a 14-year-old. From then through age 21 I was mainly a miler, running that distance hundreds of times. My personal best dropped by 93 seconds during those years.

Then the improvement stalled, for two reasons: (1) persistent pain in an achilles tendon from too much speed training, and (2) graduation from college and lost opportunity to race on the track.

I floundered for almost a year, serving active-duty time with the Army Reserve, looking for a job and then settling into one -- wondering all the while what to do next with my running, if anything. The answer came to me at age 22.

If I couldn't run fast anymore, then why not go long? Road races were sprouting around the country at that time, even in my state of Iowa.

I reset the improvement clock, starting over in the long distances. A whole new set of PRs came in the next seven-plus years, in races from 10K to 50K.

This cycle ended at age 29 with my biggest injury, one that required foot surgery. Only then did I quit pushing to improve as a racer -- but not before I'd put in 15 straight years, in two cycles, when training to race was the overriding reason to run.

Both of my improvement cycles ended with injuries. But what happened to me is not what you must expect when the your improvement clock winds down to zero.

Your feet and legs don't have to fail you. Typically the racing performances don't suddenly fall off a cliff but gradually level off, then slowly tail off.

You finally see that you've gone as far as you care to push. This isn't the end of running but the beginning of a new phase, when you find gentler ways to run. For now, enjoy the long and fast ride mapped in Part Two of the book Running Long, realizing this phase has a time limit.

(Next issue: Living the racing after-life.)

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