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

Thu, 09 Aug 2012 07:37:58 -0400

First Class

RUNNING COMMENTARY 949

(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 May 2005 issue.)

Reading the book and seeing the movie Seabiscuit reminded me of Dean Roe. I didn’t connect my first coach with the racehorse but with his trainer, Tom Smith. He spoke one of the best lines I’ve ever heard about coaching: “A horse doesn’t care how much you know until it knows how much you care.” Two-legged runners feel the same way.

Mr. Roe wasn’t technically savvy in running. But, oh, how he cared about his athletes. The young can sense this without being told. I think of Tom Smith’s line, and my first coach’s application of it, while greeting a new running class the first day of each term at the University of Oregon.

New students don’t know me, or I them. They see only a short guy, old enough to be their dad or grandpa, standing before them. I see faces that silently challenge me to make waking up at this early hour worth their while.

I say nothing about my credits as a writer. All I tell of my years as a runner is, “I won’t ask you to run anything here that I wouldn’t do myself, and haven’t done a thousand times. This program will work if you give it a chance.”

Some don’t. They either don’t like what they hear that day and bail out before the first run, or they let that one discourage them from trying another. I wish they had withheld judgment until they’d seen that the teacher cared and heard what he knew.

Withholding judgment goes both ways. Looking over the dozens of strangers at the start, I try not to guess which ones will still be with me at the end, or how far they will have come in those 10 weeks. Every class brings its surprises. A memorable young man stood out for his size, and a woman for her talent.

A guy named Matt wore his weight proudly enough to quote it to the pound – 247. He looked like a linebacker escaped from the football team, and I might have judged him strong-but-slow. Wrong. Matt ran his 5K that term in 19 minutes. I’ve never seen anyone so big go so fast.

A woman named Kim told on her first-day questionnaire of having no running experience. We wondered together if she could handle this 5K training class. She broke 20 minutes in her first-ever race. “Is that good?” she asked. It showed enough promise for Kim, a freshman, to be recruited for the University of Oregon cross-country team.

A student can do as much teaching, of the teacher, as learning. My students have taught me never to prejudge who will catch fire as a runner, or how hot and long she or he might burn.

STARTING AND IMPROVING

No student of mine has flamed brighter than a woman named Max. Whatever spark brought her to a running class almost died the first week.

For my very first class, in 2001, she showed up carrying a motorcycle helmet and wearing boots, bleached hair, enough metal piercings to set off alarms, and a tough look. I couldn’t yet get beyond the costume and see her as a lasting runner.

The roster listed her name as Angela Skorodinsky, a grad student who was 32 at the time. But when the class survey form asked what she preferred to be called, she wrote “Max.” It fit – short and strong, just like her.

The class began with a timed mile. Not an all-out mile race but a simple run to draw a fitness baseline. Max lagged a half-lap behind the next-to-last finisher, running (with some walking) 11:02.

Afterward she complained about how hard it had been, how finishing so far back had embarrassed her, how she wanted to look for a different fitness class. I gave her a your-best-is-good-enough speech. Somehow the words worked, and Max kept trying.

Students in my beginning-running class are only vaguely aware, if at all, that Hayward Field is one of the shrines of the sport. To them it is just a classroom where they meet twice each term.

During these sessions, the students mingle with hotshot young athletes who know all too well the meaning of Hayward. They finish their morning runs by striding the straightaways at speeds that bring gasps from the students.

The hotshots sometimes act amused by our pace. One said with a smile as the beginners took a scheduled walk break, “I thought this was a RUNNING class.” Sometimes the fast guys act annoyed when a beginner moves out of their way too slowly, as if it were their track instead of ours for this hour.

This scene gives a mini-look at the sport as a whole. The idea floats among longtime runners that the second running boom is a mirage... that the new runners aren’t “real” because they aren’t just like us... that the new ones get in our way... that they don’t try, don’t care, won’t last.

The same might have been said about any of us when we began. Who’s to say that newcomers won’t find the same reasons as we did to keep going?

Max kept at it. When our first class together ended as it had begun, with a one-mile test. she asked, “What splits do I need to run to break nine minutes?” Ten weeks earlier she would have thought a split was a stretching exercise. Two months earlier she couldn’t have imagined improving by two minutes, and now she’d made it possible.

Again she chugged along in last place, but now a close last. She paced herself perfectly, then groaned while pushing each of her final steps to shave seconds. “Eight fifty-five,” I called to her. She thrust her first into the air and shouted, “Yeeesss!”

GRADUATING AND CONTINUING

Max Skorodinsky didn’t stop running after one class. She returned the next term, entering a 5K race and then a 10K. A year after her shaky start, Max decided without any prodding from her teacher that she would run the Portland Marathon. She plotted her own training.

I only saw her a few times that summer, but she e-mailed regular progress reports. She listed a pair of two-hour-plus runs, both on a riverside bike path at night. Normally I’d warn a woman against running alone at that place and time, but not Max. She’s a rugby player who knows just where to kick and how hard.

Her midterm test of marathon training was a local half-marathon race. “Damn, that’s a long way!” she said at the end of it. “Now I have to think about going twice this far.” I assured her she’d be okay if she did the needed training between July and October. She did, pushing the long runs on up while continuing to run them alone at night.

That year’s Portland Marathon was the first that any of my students ran. The last of them to finish, and the happiest and proudest, was Max. She’s short but ran tall, seemingly a foot off the ground, as she finished. Her time was 5:08.

When I greeted Max in the chute, she turned and pointed to a cloth sign on her back. I still choke up while recalling its words: “Thanks, Joe.” Thanks go to her. She’d planned and carried out the training, she’d run the distance, and she’d reminded me again never to write off a runner in the first week.

Soon after the Portland race I read a set of venomous letters in FootNotes, the official magazine of the Road Runners Club of America. Collectively the writers said that slow marathoners deserve no praise.

One letter-writer thought that marathons “should turn off the clock after five hours and consider the race over. If you cannot finish under five hours, you have no business running a marathon.” I would dare this critic to look Max in the eyes and say she doesn’t belong.

UPDATE: A bit of delicious irony: FootNotes ceased publication with the issue quoted above. Max Skorodinsky ran on. She improved by 21 minutes in her second marathon, running exactly the 11:02 pace of her first mile – for 26 times the original distance.

Max has yet to try another marathon. But 11 years after she began running in my class, her name still appears regularly in results from shorter races.


[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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