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

Thu, 02 Aug 2012 05:30:56 -0400

Boston and Beyond

RUNNING COMMENTARY 948

(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 March 2005 issue.)

In 1966 I was a recent college graduate but already feeling old as a runner. Most of my teammates had retired. My last PR in the mile was two years old and looked permanent. The sport already had taken me further than I’d ever expected to go. I’d run track meets from New York state to California, from Minnesota to Texas. I’d run twice in NCAA cross-country meets. What was left?

Run a marathon, singular. After finishing it, I could retire happy. And if I was to run but one marathon, it had to be Boston, the only one that mattered in the 1960s.

If you weren’t running in the mid-1960s, you can’t imagine how little direction we had on training for marathons. Today’s magazine racks, bookshelves and websites overflow with such advice. But back then we groped in the dark, trying to find our way.

I stumbled upon training that worked surprisingly well for me. Much later, after I’d wandered through other approaches that didn’t work as well, my first program became a model for the training advice that I later added to the published deluge.

To run a marathon I had to break old habits. The point of all my running to date had been to race short distances faster. Now I had to slow down and go longer. Now the plan was just to finish the 1967 Boston before official timing expired. Getting in required no qualifying time then, but recorded finishers needed to break 3:30.

To race farther than ever before, I needed to train as never before: by slowing down on purpose. The long-run pace settled at a sedate minute or two per mile slower than it had ever been before. With more than half a year to train for Boston the distances climbed slowly, by about a mile per month. My longest run of that training period was also the slowest. It dawdled at eight-minute pace.

These distances and paces weren’t part of a grand plan. I was guessing at what needed to be done, making up the schedule as I went along. My long runs peaked at 20 miles that late winter.

I’d intended to step on up from there, maybe reaching 22 or even 23. Life had other plans. Great ones, to be sure, but they seemed to erase the marathon from my spring calendar.

TIME OF MY LIFE

My career as a running writer began in early 1967, at Track & Field News. While moving from Iowa to California and settling in there, I quit training for Boston. Three days before the race I told new boss Dick Drake about being entered but not going because I’d earned no vacation time for this midweek trip.

“Not going!” he said. “You have to go. You can’t miss a chance like this. Take two days off, then come back and work the weekend.”

I erased most of my savings account for my first coast-to-coast plane ticket. Two friends from Iowa, first-time marathoner Tom Murphy and Boston vet John Clarke who’d come east to watch this race, let me crowd into their hotel room.

After a short night’s sleep and a light breakfast, we boarded a bus for the start in Hopkinton. So much had happened so quickly that I didn’t leave time to worry about never having gone this far before and not having trained long enough lately. My aims were modest anyway: to squeeze out another half-dozen miles at the same pace as my longest training run for an anything-under-3:30 finish.

Neither watches nor checkpoint distances were reliable back then. The few times I heard along the course either meant nothing to me (as Boston took them at traditional crossroads such as 6¾ and 17¼ miles) or sounded too fast to be trusted. Roughly halfway at a sub-three-hour marathon pace? Impossible.

Too soon, it seemed, the Prudential building loomed in the near distance. The race would finish there in another couple of miles. My watch said, and an occasional building clock confirmed, that nowhere near three hours had passed since the start. Could this be happening?

I can’t say those final miles were easy. Marathon finishes never are. But neither were they slow. Coming down the homestretch, I saw no time displayed. Digital clocks wouldn’t appear at finish lines until the 1970s.

Confirmation that I wasn’t dreaming or hallucinating finally came from my Iowa friend John Clarke. As I walked away from the finish line, he rushed up, thrust his stopwatch into my face and shouted, “You broke 2:50 – by 12 seconds!”

PUTTING ACTIONS INTO WORDS

I’m not just talking ancient history here. What happened in early 1967 led right to this page. The lessons learned way back then come up as advice given now.

One race doesn’t prove much. But I didn’t settle for just one. Instead I raced marathons (as opposed to running them just to survive, which came later) another two dozen times over the next dozen years. These races taught me why the first one had gone so well, and why some others hadn’t.

This one runner’s experiences don’t prove much, either. But I’ve published schedules in articles and then in books since 1977. Readers who used these programs have both verified their value and helped refine them. I never ran faster than that Boston time because I’d guessed just about right how to train for it.

But because I didn’t know what “right” was, I fumbled around in search of something better. My long runs reached as far as 32 miles, and as little as 12. I raced almost every weekend, and ran no races besides the marathon. My easy runs averaged more than an hour a day, and barely a half-hour.

Only when marathon racing was ending for me, in the late 1970s, did clear hindsight tell me how the training had and hadn’t worked. Years of further trials and errors had to come between me and my best marathon before I saw which parts of the training program to highlight and which to cross out.

Only then did I publish my first advice on the subject. A tidied-up version of the training done for Boston 1967 became the template for my first article on marathon training, written 10 years later. A more clarified version of that program was published another 20 years after that as a book, simply titled Marathon Training. (Its second edition came out in 2003.) The key words to this plan are “long,” “fast” and “easy.”

– Long Runs. Success depends mostly on the long run, and everything else in the program is little more than filler. Move up to 20 miles minimum, by two-mile steps taken every two to three weeks. A fast runner can train a minute or more per mile slower than projected marathon pace, then shift into a higher “gear” on race day (as I once did). A runner without speed gears (which I now lack) might train and race at about the same pace.

– Fast Runs. Racing is the best speed training. Race on some of the weekends without long runs. Race no longer than 10K, so it’s sure to be really fast and so the race recovery won’t interfere with the next long run. (Another way to train faster is to run half the latest long-run distance, at the expected pace of the marathon. Again, make this the only hard run that week.)

– Easy Days. About nine in every 10 must be neither long nor fast. Keep these days truly easy – no longer than one hour and at least one minute per mile slower than race pace for a similar distance, with one or more rest days each week.

Critics of my published program might say it errs on the light side: not enough total running, not enough long running in distance and number of runs, not enough speed, not enough months of training. I respond that I wouldn’t ask you to do anything more or harder than I did myself. With these writings I want to show that if I could train this way and race this well, why not you?

UPDATE: Since 2005 I’ve coached marathon training teams using the program outlined here. The finish rate for 300-plus runners who started their races was 99-plus percent.


[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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