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

Sun, 29 Jan 2006 08:19:34 -0500

Honor Students

RUNNING COMMENTARY 608

Here we go again. I face a new class of new runners, and we're mostly strangers to each other.

The college-age students see me only as a little guy old enough to be their grandfather. Once again I have prove to them that my class is worth getting up for twice a week.

By one measure I always fail with a one-quarter of these kids. They are the dropouts who decide that my training is too tough, too easy or too early for them. They miss the surprises that running, and I as a teacher, might have held for them.

That fallout rate probably betters the national average. I doubt if three in every four people who resolve to start running in the new year will last past January.

Once again I await some surprises. In five years of teaching these classes at the University of Oregon, I haven't yet learned how to predict who will catch fire as a runner, then burn the brightest through this term and beyond.

My "honor students" themselves don't yet know who they are. They could be among the slowest runners in class.

My all-time honor student is a woman named Max. Each term begins with a one-mile test, and Max's time there was one of the slowest ever.

She called herself a "bad runner," but I wouldn't hear of it. "The only bad runners are those who don't try or give up," I told her.

Max kept trying. She eventually ran a marathon at a faster pace than her original time for a single mile.

I can't yet guess who will become honor students in my new class. But I can name them from the last one completed.

Their names are Leif, Takehiro and Jenna. They won the class prizes, based not on speed but on attendance and improvement.

These three served up the reminders than I need every few months: don't judge a runner's potential by how he or she looks at first. I had my early doubts about all three.

Leif, big and dark-skinned and clearly not blond by nature, came the first day wearing hair bleached yellow. By the next week it had added green to match the school's colors. My first thought about him: not serious enough to last out this term.

Leif usually showed up late for class, but he almost always came. His attendance was among the best for this group (where students tend to push the limit of four misses without stepping over).

I tell the students, "Attendance is everything in running. Show up, and you get better at it. Don't, and you don't."

I also tell them, "You know you've paced yourself well when your fast runs are one to two minutes per mile faster than you go on relaxed training runs." Leif, still sporting yellow and green hair, won the prize for improving most from his last long run to the final mile: almost two minutes.

The fall term was a Japanese student named Takehiro's first at the University of Oregon. Like many international students I've known, he was better at reading English than hearing or responding to it.

I made a point of speaking to him each class day. He often looked mystified at my words.

Takehiro was another runner I'd given little chance of lasting out the term. He acted chronically stressed by his first time away from home and first year of college. He rushed breathless to class each day, as if he'd studied until the last possible minute.

But he kept coming back, and he kept getting better. His mile time for the term improved more than anyone else's -- by 2:26.

The last day of class I praised him lavishly before the group. He didn't fully grasp who the cheers were for, or why, but knew he'd done well.

Our other honor student was Jenna. I worried about her completing the class for a different reason than the two guys.

She looked every bit the athlete she'd been in high school just a year ago. Except that her soccer career there had left one of her knees badly damaged.

Jenna came to our first run carrying a brace that would have looked at home on an offensive lineman. Serious-looking metal bars supported her knee.

I said, "Let me know how the knee feels after our runs." She never did, so I asked.

"Fine" was all she would say. By mid-term I quit asking.

Jenna never missed a class, winning the attendance prize. Better, she talked glowingly about her runs on other days. She signed up for the next level of class, 5K training.

That's the best outcome from these classes: seeing which students want to attend and don't want to stop at these two weekly runs for this 10 weeks.

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