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

Thu, 09 Feb 2012 04:53:38 -0500

Leaving a Mark

RUNNING COMMENTARY 923

(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from February 1991. It also appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

Mark Nenow, fastest American since the mid-1980s in the track 10,000 and road 10K, is talking about retiring at age 33. Chronic hamstring problems led him to doubt if he’ll race seriously again.

I’ll be sorry to see him go. We all could use him as a model for simplifying our running.

I met Nenow at a running seminar in Houston shortly after he’d set his world road 10K best in 1984. He spoke without notes and answered questions with lots of “I don’t knows.” But his non-answers had much to say.

Nenow didn’t know his weight and resting pulse. He didn’t want his blood tested or his muscles biopsied. He didn’t use a computer to determine his training schedule.

He didn’t remember his times from recent races. He didn’t keep any records in a diary.

He said he entered competition with only the most general plan: “Stick my nose in it and run with the leaders as long as I can. That way, I either make a breakthrough or die like a dog.”

Nenow was a refreshing throwback to a low-tech era. He certainly worked hard, running the high mileage at the fast pace needed to compete at his level.

But the way Nenow approached that training separated him from his contemporaries. He concerned himself only with the generalities of training steadily and racing hard, and let the specifics take care of themselves.

Such looseness required great faith that the instincts guiding him were the proper ones. Nenow trusted himself to do the right things without help from a team of coaches and scientists, and without the backing of elaborate plans and logbooks.

His way didn’t always work. He never peaked at the right time to make an Olympic team.

Yet he recovered quickly from disappointment. Failures were less devastating when expectations weren’t excessive, and successes were all the more satisfying when they weren’t planned.

Nenow said that all of his big improvements came as “surprises.” Because he didn’t set time goals, he also set no artificial limits on himself.

He once passed the midpoint of a track 10,000-meter race faster than his 5000 personal record. More number-conscious runners might have thought: Uh-oh, I can’t keep going at this pace. Better slow down.

Nenow kept going, willing to risk “dying like a dog.” He didn’t die but improved his 10,000 time by nearly a minute.

In recent years Mark enlisted a coach and began training more traditionally. He listened to advisers who said that the marathon would be his best event, tried two of them, ran into injuries and never quite reached his old standards again.

At his best he may have been short on knowledge of running theory and statistics, but he was long on wisdom. Anyone with a little know-how can complicate something simple, but only the wise can simplify something complicated.

Mark Nenow’s lesson to us all was not to let the planning and analyzing get in the way of the doing and enjoying.


UPDATE: The new century began with Nenow still holding the U.S. track 10,000 record and the national best for the road 10K. His track mark didn’t fall until 2001, by which time he’d worked as an executive for several running-shoe companies.

The current (and much older) version of Nenow is Ed Whitlock, who ran well below three hours for a marathon in his early 70s and last year did 3:15 at 80. His routine is starkly simple: no intervals or tempo runs, no cross-training or supplemental exercises; just two or more hours a day at a relaxed pace, with frequent (and fast) races at widely ranging distances to keep up his speed.


[I’ve published nine books on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com for reading on e-reader devices, smart phones, tablets and personal computers. All are minimally priced at $2.99 each. Those same books are available, with added illustrations, as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com – also for $2.99 apiece. The titles: Long Slow Distance, Long Run Solution, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Starting Lines, Going Far, Running Home and Joe’s Journal, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe. The Run Right Now Training Log is PDF only, from Lulu.com.]

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