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

Sat, 11 Nov 2006 05:45:17 -0500

Filling the Great Gap

RUNNING COMMENTARY 649

(first published in November 2000 RW)

One Sunday morning I watched a marathon start in Penticton, British Columbia, then drove to the airport in nearby Kelowna. Passing through that second town less than 50 miles later, I saw another marathon getting underway.

A marathon was run that same day in the neighboring province of Alberta, and one across the border in Washington state. Apparently we have enough marathoners now to let this many races co-exist.

But in darker moments I think about how marathon mania has almost entirely erased a set of perfectly fine events. The natural stepping stones leading up to the marathon -- the 15- and 20-mile, 25K and 30K races -- now stand nearly bare.

Road racing is polarizing as race distances move to very short or very long. The fastest-growing events on the U.S. roads are 5K's at the one pole and marathons at the other. Fives are logical starting points for newbies and serve as speed tests for vets. Marathons are glamorous survival tests for all.

Eight-, 10- and 12K's remain numerous and attractive. We can still find enough races of 15K, 10-miles and half-marathon.

But between the half and the full marathon lies... well, not much. This 13-mile gap is the black hole of running.

The only nationally known races to survive in this void are the Old Kent Riverbank 25K in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the 15-mile Charleston Distance Run in West Virginia. A gem of a Canadian race is the Around the Bay 30K in Hamilton, Ontario, which happens to be older than Boston.

It also happens to be my last "gap" race, run in 1998. I might run more of them if more could be found.

During my best racing years in the 1970s, the Northern California calendar alone offered a 25K in Golden Gate Park, a 15-mile in the Gold Country, a 20-mile in Sacramento and another 20 through the Coast Range, a 30K and a 17-mile on the Monterey Peninsula. I ran all of them, almost every year.

Most of these events are gone now, and this trend repeats itself across the country. The gap races are too hard to sell to runners who seem to prefer races much shorter or the marathon itself.

My suggestion for refilling the gap is to use the marathon as a sales tool for these races. Build them into marathon training.

Many of the runners I met at Around the Bay were using the 30K as training for a spring marathon. So was I, with Vancouver coming up five weeks later.

A pet belief of mine is that the best training for racing IS to race. You can't push as hard alone as you can with company on the course, and drinks, splits and cheers dealt out as you go. This is the most enjoyable way to "train." (In fact, in my fastest racing years I did little long or fast training but ran a race almost weekly at a wide range of distances.)

To work this way, the race must resemble the one you're training for in distance and pace. When the great gap goes unfilled, we've lost an opportunity to train for a marathon with the support from a crowd and all the other racing amenities.

A half-marathon race isn't long enough to serve this purpose (as I've learned the hard way from trying to make that long leap upward). Starting a full marathon with plans to drop out after 15 or 20 miles (as I've also done) feels a little like failure.

Memo to marathon race directors and marathon training-group leaders: Install races of 15 and 20 miles; 25, 30 and 35 kilometers, or 16.2 miles or 26 kilometers (both about 10 miles shy of a marathon) as stepping stones to the big event. Don't try to make them as formal or frill-filled as the marathon itself, but give runners a chance to go these distances and set PRs under official conditions.

Memo to runners: Enter these gap races when they're offered. They're great distances in their own right, great preparation for the realities of marathoning and great places to stop before the full reality of that distance catches you unprepared.
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