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

Thu, 16 Aug 2012 06:06:48 -0400

The First Team

RUNNING COMMENTARY 950

(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 2005 issue.)

It’s instructive what you can hear while running when you aren’t too busy talking and don’t have recorded music or news talk plugged into your ears. Here’s what I heard one morning:

Two runners came up from behind. One did most of the talking, his volume growing as the gap between us shrunk. The first words I caught were “... new marathon training program.” Then “... only run long every other week.” And louder, “They only go over 20 miles once, peaking at 21.”

They passed me with a small wave from one and a nod from the other. They didn’t know me, or that I’d overheard them. The gap between us grew again. The last words I heard were, “... not enough training.”

Says who? Themselves, from their marathon experiences? Another writer whose schedules they’ve read? They weren’t reading my writing. And their experience didn’t match mine.

They were talking down a training program being adopted for the first time locally. That was my schedule, written for the Marathon Team that I was coaching. The runners whose critique I heard were right in their description. But they were wrong, I have to think, in their conclusion.

Yes, the long runs would come every other weekend, going up by two-mile steps from 11. (A pre-training program built to 10 miles, testing if runners could or wanted to continue.) Yes, the distance would peak at 21 miles, the only training run above 20. And yes, these runs WOULD be long enough for most runners. (The most common cause of breakdowns in training that I’ve seen is too many too-long runs with too little recovery between.)

These ideas weren’t wild guesses at what might work in marathon training. I didn’t make any of this up lately just to sell books to thousands of shortcut-seekers. This type of training has a long history, starting with my own entry into marathoning in 1967.

Ten years later, readers first saw an early version of this program. The latest incarnations of the schedule appear in the book Marathon Training, now into a second edition.

I hear from very few of the book’s readers, which isn’t a bad sign. You know how we runners are: We don’t quietly swallow our disappointments. Anyone who felt led far astray by Marathon Training would have let me know quickly and vociferously, yet these complaints are rare.

An earlier column in Marathon & Beyond (RC 948) told how my approach came about. It silently answered the early-morning talkers who’d concluded, “not enough.” A better rebuttal would come in June 2005 at Newport, Oregon, when my first Marathon Team reached its graduation day.

GETTING THERE

Writing training schedules in books is the easy part. They go to an unseen audience, to take or leave, and then I walk away. I rarely hear who took or left this advice. Acting as a coach for months of Sundays, getting to know the runners as individuals, is harder than writing a schedule – and immensely more satisfying. Also more nerve-wracking.

A coaching truism: Credit all goes to that athlete when everything goes right. Blame goes to the coach when something bad happens. I promised myself, when the direct coaching began in January 2005, to give the credit and take the blame. My first and biggest responsibility was more medical than technical: to keep these runners healthy enough to get where they wanted to go. Not all did.

You can’t judge the worth of a training program by counting only the marathoners who finished the race. You must account too for any training casualties. During this training cycle I lost three runners to injury.

I take the blame for not spotting their trouble early enough to help them get past it. Few of the remaining 16 runners eased through the training trouble-free. I listened to all the physical complaints, from head (colds) to foot (plantar fascia). I-T band pain became the injury of the season.

Everyone survived these scares, and the team of 16 reached Newport intact on marathon weekend. But their troubles, real or imagined, weren’t over yet. By race eve pre-marathon neuroses had kicked in, with almost everyone now suffering from some race-threatening malady. Worry exaggerates the severity, and their worries multiplied by 16 for me.

I’m not a doctor but played one while coaching the Marathon Team. The irony here was that the group included an emergency-room physician, Tod Hayes. The Sunday of our final training run I’d said to Tod as he was leaving, “Stay away from sick people this week.” He had laughed at this absurdity.

That Friday night I saw Tod as we checked into our hotel. His voice sounded raspy. “I caught a cold this week,” he noted with a resigned shake of his head. I asked him questions, then gave advice. Only later did I see what I’d done: play doctor to a real doctor. I felt responsible for his health too.

FAMILY MATTERS

I can’t think of a more anticlimactic or empty end to marathon training than to come to the race alone. Teaming up for our event meant that no one had to finish this way. We trained as a team.

Then on marathon weekend everyone saw the support team that helped the runners get there. Spouses, parents, children, grandkids, partners and friends came to Newport on the Oregon coast. Many of them met each other for the first time at our own pasta dinner.

The largest number came in support of Paula Montague. She uses the name “flyingmama” in her e-mail address. Paula is the mother of three daughters, “and my 16-year-old sister is like a fourth.” Those four, and Paula’s own mother, were in Newport.

A few weeks after the marathon, Paula would undergo a medical procedure (she wouldn’t call it “surgery”) to correct a non-life-threatening heart irregularity. Her concerns were more immediate: knee pains that had all but stopped her since our longest training run.

As I mother-henned the Team on the course, the last to pass my spot at three miles was Paula. I asked about her knees. She grimaced, shook her head and asked for the tube of Biofreeze that she’d left with me. We next met up at 11 miles. This time she smiled, shouted “I’m better now!” and stopped for a hug of mutual relief.

Our next runner ahead of Paula at that point, Michelle Martin, appeared fearless. She’d started boldly, given her condition.

On our first day together back in January, the runners filled out an information sheet. I asked if any physical condition might affect their training. Michelle had written, “Can discuss later,” then added a smiley face.

In April, Michelle announced that she was pregnant. I might have urged her to postpone the marathon for a year if she hadn’t already rejected that idea. “My doctor gave me permission to keep running,” she said, “if I keep my heart rate below 140.”

I was never clear if she mentioned “marathon” to the doctor, but do know that her monitored pulse seldom dropped as low as the recommended high. Michelle also wore a watch that beeped when she was schedule to walk for a minute. Only sometimes did she heed it.

Into her fourth month on race day Michelle still didn’t look like a pregnant woman – or run like one. She passed my spot at all miles, running a minute per mile ahead of her pace goal, seeming worry-free.

But the marathon wasn’t yet halfway finished. It was Michelle’s first, just as this would be her first child. A lot could happen in the second half, of a marathon as with a pregnancy, some of it unpleasant to anticipate or to experience.

GRADUATION DAY

A first marathon is like a first love. No matter how beautifully or badly it goes, you will never forget it. That first marathon day can change you in ways that you couldn’t have imagined before running the race.

After their graduation exercises at the Newport Marathon, I wrote to the runners, “I’ve never been prouder of more runners on a single day. Each of you gave me chills for your own reasons as you hit your finish line at Newport – in a race that didn’t start at seven o’clock this morning but four months ago in your first training run with this Team. Even if you didn’t run the time you’d hoped for, remember that veteran marathoners say the same thing about their races as pilots do about their landings: any that you can walk away from is a good one. All 16 of you finished and can walk away proudly.”

The greatest benefit of this program wasn’t the training plan or the coaching. It was the support that these runners shared for these months of Sundays. “You helped each other do what you might not have done alone,” I told them. “Ultimately that is what you’ll remember most about this marathon.”

Our final finisher, Paula Montague, sobbed with the greatest joy and relief that her knees had allowed this. Her heart procedure two weeks later would bring even more success, and relief.

Dr. Tod Hayes’s cold didn’t slow him. He had told no one of his sub-four-hour goal until after he met it, by 25 seconds.

Michelle Martin lost her time goal to the long lines at the potties but finished the race. She would deliver a healthy daughter that fall.

Ten of our 16 runners were first-time marathoners, and all finished. One of them, Laura McClain, ran like a pro. She alone on this Team paced herself to negative splits.

“I had never been on a team of any kind, nor did I participate in sports in school,” Laura told me later. “I was too shy and scared. This group was the first organized sports thing I’ve ever done, at almost 40. I was so extremely nervous the first couple Sundays I thought I would throw up. It wasn’t so much the running I was scared of, though I was definitely scared of not keeping up, getting lost, wearing the wrong thing, tripping or looking foolish somehow. Finishing the marathon was as big of an emotional breakthrough for me as it was physically.”

You never forget anything about a breakthrough this big. It changes how you choose your next test, face it and then graduate from it.

UPDATE: Two members of that original Marathon Team, Laura McClain and Courtney Smith, have graduated to coaching their groups of their own.


[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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