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

Thu, 26 Jul 2012 06:01:34 -0400

Good/Bad Times

RUNNING COMMENTARY 947

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the November 2008 issue.)

Nationally 1968 was a dreadful year. By many measures it goes down as the darkest year for a generation coming of age then, and our 40th-anniversary observances were subdued.

Martin Luther King fell to an assassin in early 1968, then Robert Kennedy two months later. An unwinnable war drove Lyndon Johnson from the presidency that year, opening the office to Richard Nixon. Battles on both sides of the Pacific split generations and races into us-versus-them camps.

As an Army Reservist I wasn’t divorced from all of this. But I remained a sideline observer, waiting to see if the next foreign or domestic crisis would bring a call to active duty. None ever did.

Yet I say with only slight pangs of guilt that as the country seemed to come apart in 1968, the pieces of my life fell nicely into place. I’d found a dream job (at Track & Field News in California) with many pleasures and few pressures, found a home (in a converted horse stable) on a mini-farm, found good friends (those who ran and didn’t), found my first dog (a German shepherd mix named Liesl) since childhood.

My life, apart from its military component, had never been better. Neither had running, where I peaked as a racer that year. Never had I stayed so healthy for so long – or raced so well, so often, over so wide a distance range.

I reached the tip-top of this peak year at a summer track meet. The results there provided my best rebuttal to doubters who warned that “your slow training will lead to nothing but slow racing.”

Foothill College hosted low-key summer meets. I could see the stadium lights from the bathroom window of my stable-turned-studio-apartment. My night of nights began with a warmup run to Foothill. My plan there was to race only the mile. A friend had other ideas for me. Jeff Kroot had driven from Berkeley for this meet, a tough commute during Bay Area rush hours. For his three-hour round trip, the least I could give him was pacing help in his three-mile run.

Jeff was my first California running friend. I knew his name, as a credit line on Track & Field News photos, before we met at a race. Photography was a hobby he practiced while finishing his schooling as an architect. Jeff and Tina’s place in Berkeley became my second home.

We talked long and often, and with increasing despair about the escalating disasters of 1968. I was in the Army, sort of, and Jeff awaited a draft call (which never came). We were to realize that we couldn’t change the world but only ourselves. One small way to do this was in our running.

We were the same age and had started racing the same year. Independently we had rejected speed-based training for longer and slower runs, with similar results. Our race times were as closely matched as our political and social views.

My mile this night was the fastest I had run since slowing my training to marathon pace, coming within 10 seconds of my speed-trained best. I’d paid a much higher price in work and worry for that earlier time than for this one.

I’d always been a slow recoverer after races, therefore a poor doubler. So my plan in the second race was only to help Jeff “for as long as I can keep up.” At two miles of the three we were still together. He freed me there, not to stop but to “go for it.”

I finished in my second-fastest time at this distance, and another slow-trained “personal best,” while completing my best double ever. Jeff broke his PR by a big margin.

We were onto something good in our running but didn’t yet know exactly what it was. Now I know. I got lucky and stumbled into the right combination of hard and easy, fast and slow, long and short running at the right time in my life.

The best of times began in May 1968 (after I dropped out of a marathon) and ended seven months later (when marathon training resumed). In between I ran 20 races (as short as one mile and as long as 30K). Seven resulted in permanent PRs (most notably at 10K), most others were near-misses. Injuries totaled zero.

Only 20-20 hindsight showed me why this was so. That short year featured my most perfect blend of method with timing. I was 25 years old – a prime age for runners – and still not deeply into family and career duties that would have conflicted with running goals. This was also my 10th year as a racer, at the end of an improvement cycle that we’re promised no matter when we start to race.

My everyday running was purely long and slow, but not TOO long or TOO slow. The longest weekly run averaged about two hours, and most others were less than half that length – always at a relaxed pace. That’s to say I never trained very hard. This wasn’t so much a training method as a RECOVERY plan between races.

Frequent racing, plus going into the races fresh and healthy and eager, made this system work. I averaged almost a race a week during that seven-month period. Yet most of the races were short (many on the track), and they accounted for less than one-tenth of total mileage.

Not knowing exactly what I’d done right, I soon strayed from this mix. My magical spell ended in a drift toward longer long runs, fewer easy runs, more long races, less track racing and a higher percentage of racing. This combination led to more injuries and fewer PRs – and finally to a career-altering breakdown four years later. By the time I could see what had gone right, then wrong, my chance to reclaim the magic 1968 had passed.

PRs become permanent, as many of mine did way back then. But the lessons learned while running them are timeless. They might still help runners with time left on their 10-year improvement clock.


UPDATE: Jeff Kroot was one of six runners featured in my first book, Long Slow Distance, and he remains one of my closest friends in this sport. We recently attended the track Olympic Trials together, 44 years after our big summer detailed in this column.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. The other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, will be serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine, starting this September.]
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