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

Thu, 14 Feb 2013 04:52:25 -0500

Past Fast

RUNNING COMMENTARY 976

(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 July 2006 issue.)

Speed is fleeting. Enjoy it while you have it, because it won’t last long. For most runners, racing speed peaks in our first 10 years or so, then slowly erodes. Then our PRs become memories instead of goals.

Paces that we once held for a marathon become those of a half, then a 10K, a 5K, a single mile. If we keep running races, they become slower than our easy training runs used to be. If that prospect depresses you, consider the alternative: full retirement.

I can’t speak for you, but I’d much rather be a slow runner than no runner. I had my allotted decade of improvement and a little more. My PRs first started falling at age 14, and the last big one fell at 25. Which means I’ve gone without any new ones for almost four-fifths of my running life.

If you run long enough, this will happen to you. Then you’ll look back at all your fastest times, and look ahead to... what? That’s what you’re about to hear: that there’s life after the last PR, and that it’s a good and active and satisfying life. You won’t just hear from me but from someone who had much more speed to lose.

You can pick no better model for slowing gracefully than Bill Rodgers. I’ve watched it, and have taken inspiration from it.

Few Americans have ever raced better and faster than Bill: a total of eight victories within five years at the Boston and New York City Marathons, first American to break 2:10 (which he did twice, along with 26 more sub-2:15s). Those are his memories now.

The years are great levelers. After chasing Bill Rodgers since the 1970s, I finally caught up with him – briefly – in 2005. I’ll save that story for later.

The first time we ran the same race, I “beat” him, but so did everyone else who finished the 1977 Boston Marathon. Bill dropped out. He said that day, “The marathon can always humble you.” So, he would learn later, can running in general. But it also can make you proud of whatever you’re able to do under current conditions.

The second time I chased Bill at Boston, in 1979, he won the race, lowered his own American record and – not that he noticed – beat me by more than an hour. I paid no more attention to him that day than he did to me. We had our own races to run, and we both came away with our own special blends of pride and humility.

Bill’s time that day, six years after his first marathon, would forever remain his fastest. He would announce his retirement from racing this distance in 1993. Only later would I see that Boston 1979 would be my last marathon to run as a race.

Then what? Did we stop running? Of course not, but only eased our distance and pace. Stop running races? Not that either, but only changing what we raced and how.

Few sports define retirement as running does, where few athletes ever retire totally or permanently. Bill Rodgers hasn’t, nor have I, nor should you.

RETIREMENT PLANS

Bill Rodgers has a rare and wonderful gift. He makes anyone who meets him for the first time and spends a few minutes in his company feel like his friend. I know Bill a little better than most of his acquaintances, having spent hours instead of minutes with him.

Through the years we’ve sometimes shared the stage for talks to runners, I’ve written articles about him, and for a few months in 1990 he and Priscilla Welch teamed with me on the book Masters Running and Racing.

Bill didn’t think so at the time of that writing, but he’d already run his last sub-2:15 marathon. He didn’t know it then, but he was just three years away from “retiring” as a marathoner.

I wrote in 1993, “Don’t believe it when Bill Rodgers says he has run his last marathon. Those were the post-marathon blues talking when he announced that one of the greatest marathon careers in history was finished.”

Bill said then, “Marathoning is one of the ultimate grinds in the sport. I’ve been ground down enough. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

He proved Frank Shorter’s adage that “you can’t think of running another marathon until you forget how bad the last one felt.” The slowest ones hurt the worst because something has gone wrong and the suffering then lasts longer.

Hot-weather racing was Bill’s weakness, and this marathon in Vietnam had been one of the hottest. It had dragged on a full hour longer than his fastest race. “In time,” I predicted in 1993, “he’ll forget how bad it felt. He has gotten over worse disappointments.”

This wasn’t as bad as his first marathon. In 1973 his career at this distance could have ended where it started.

“I now know that it’s better to err on the side of caution in your first marathon,” he wrote in the Masters book. “But in my first I aimed for both a high place and a fast time. The marathon had always seemed monumental to me. It should appear that way to anyone who runs it – that is, it should scare you into realizing that you can’t go into it unprepared.”

Bill had trained okay for that Boston Marathon, but had started too fast, drunk too little and dropped out. He called this “such a miserable experience that I stopped running completely for two months afterward.”

He would come back to win Boston two years later, then the next year would place only 40th at the Olympics. He would rebound from the Montreal Games to win at New York City that fall, then drop out of Boston in 1977. After that would come three more wins at both Boston and New York.

“Rodgers probably will realize that he doesn’t want his final memory of the marathon to be walking dizzily the last 5K in Ho Chi Minh City,” said my 1993 article on Bill. “The best way to forget a bad marathon is to follow it with a good one.”

He was only in his mid-40s then. That was fairly old to be beating newly minted masters, but still young compared to his hero. He looked to Johnny Kelley as the model for longevity. Kelley ran his final Boston Marathon at 84 (and lived another 13 years after that).

“Johnny Kelley is my Jim Thorpe,” Bill wrote in the Masters book “The rest of America may bow to the shrine of Thorpe. But to me Kelley is the greatest American athlete of all time. People ask me if I’m going to do what Johnny Kelley has done. I just can’t comprehend running that long. I do want to always be fit and hope that it will always be through running. But I don’t think I’ll be doing the marathon my whole life.”

Yet even while “retiring,” Bill talked of coming back for the 100th Boston and again when he turned 50. He wouldn’t try to run good times, he said, but to HAVE a good time.

Bill stuck to half of that plan. He ran the centennial Boston Marathon in a sedate-for-him 2:53, then let his competitive side resurface in 1999 when he set out to break Norm Green’s tough American 50-plus age record of 2:27:42.

“It was too hot,” Bill recalls now. “I DNFed at the top of Heartbreak Hill – my favorite stopping place at Boston.”

A permanent stop? Knowing what I do about him, his marathon life isn’t likely to stay that unfinished.

UPDATE: This long column continues in RC 977.


[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. Just released was Learning to Walk. 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, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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