34 years ago

February 26, 2010

My clock radio, tuned to the Big 89, Chicago’s WLS, woke me with Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing.”

It was Feb. 29, 1976 and I was going to use my  leap year day well, or at least memorably, by running my first marathon. My brother, two years older but apparently not wiser, had the idea to enter the race. Our friend Ken was also initially in on it, I think, but bailed at some point. Our high school track coach, Mr. Stergulz — a football coach/field event type in double-knit shorts with a whistle on a lanyard around his neck — told us it was a bad idea and would ruin our track seasons. He was probably right, but our track seasons probably weren’t going to be  much to begin with.

Though many people trace the beginning of the running boom to Frank Shorter’s gold medal in the 1972 Olympics, that rise in interest was yet to translate to marathoning. The race we entered was particularly low-key, organized by the Illinois Track Club, a loose assemblage of graduate students and stringy old guys in New Balance shoes. I doubt there were more than fifty people who lined up on the street that ran alongside the Illinois football stadium and basketball arena, hallowed ground in Champaign-Urbana. The course would take us south for about three miles past the university’s research farms, then we would run three circuits around a big rectangle on the blacktop roads that grid the central Illinois fields for miles and miles and miles. (Photo taken this summer shows one of the main roads and the course’s most imposing hill.)  Three miles back to the Assembly Hall and that was it. (See link at the end of this post with a map of the course.)

My brother and I both wore Tiger Jayhawks, gold with blue stripes, a sole so thin that a mile in them would cripple me now. We heeded the time-worn advice to approach a first marathon with no goal but to finish and kept the pace conversational. Though our friend Ken had opted out of the race, he had his family’s trademark Volkswagen bus and would drive alongside and give us time reports. Another runner from our high school, Bill Grimes, had also entered the race. “Grimey” was something of an enigma. On team training runs he would continually, annoyingly run a half-step ahead no matter the circumstance. Someone asked him about it once and he said, “It gives me a psychedelic edge,” a quote that got a lot of mileage. He took off from the gun and was out of sight within miles. When Ken would report how far ahead he was, it chafed a little but we held our comfortable pace, certain that we would come upon him crying by the side of the road, psychedelically broken, at some point.

I’m not sure I was particularly well prepared for the race. I can’t remember exactly what I did for training, but don’t recall anything longer than a ninety minute run. But I’d been running pretty steadily for a couple of years. Mostly, I had being fifteen years old and weighing about 120 pounds on my side. Every other marathon I’ve run has had moments of bonk and cramp and existential crisis. This one was just fun from start to finish in three hours and fourteen minutes. My brother, unfortunately, had his first encounter with the wall (bonk/cramp/existential crisis). Grimey? He never came back, broke three hours. He was a savant.

Though I finished relatively unscathed, it would be nine years until I tried another 26.2. I’ve found that generally a decade is about right for marathon recovery.



Treadmill halfpipe

February 20, 2010

Running on the treadmill the other day at the Y, I glanced up at the TV with Olympic highlights. When they showed Shaun White’s gold medal performance, I had this involuntary urge to throw my fist in the air in celebration. Then I looked in the mirror at the reflections of everyone else in the room cranking along on the cardio machines. Everyone was looking up at the screen with the same sort of starry-eyed, beatific smile. Shaun: Thanks, dude, you really helped keep it rolling.

It’s the sharks

February 16, 2010

I’ve been keeping a running log for about six consecutive weeks now. That marks a personal record for me. I think the breakthrough was finding the right notebook at the drugstore. A thin spiral with an illustration of swarming sharks on the cover. It was the last one; I was fortunate to snatch it up before the nine-year-old boys got all of them. So far I have resisted writing my name on the toothiest shark and the names of my friends/running rivals on the lesser sharks. Imagining the pitying looks of one’s family can be a powerful deterrent.

With the log has come a plan. I’ve never been too big on following prescribed training methods out of books or magazine articles. I think the core truth of the running wisdom out there boils down to this — some distance, some speed, some tempo, some cross-training, some rest. And a consistent approach to all of the above. Figuring out how to put all of that together in a way that fits into my life and keeps things interesting is one of the things I’ve always enjoyed about doing endurance sports.

I’ve tended to fall short on that consistency thing, but having to answer lately to the swarming sharks has helped me get into a nice groove. For what it’s worth, here’s what my training looks like these days.

Monday: Forty minutes of easy spinning on the bike trainer in our lovely basement.

Tuesday: 45 minutes on the treadmill. Start at 6 mph and increase .1 mph every minute until I’m at 8 mph. Hold that pace until 35 minutes. At 35 minutes, increase the pace another .1 mph until 40 minutes. Then bring the pace down in the span from 40 to 45. Followed by 15 minutes of pool running.

Wednesday: 20 minutes running on the treadmill (6 mph to 8 mph in .1 mph increments each minute). Followed by 20 minutes running in the pool.

Thursday: 45 minutes on the treadmill. Same routine with starting at 6.0 mph and kicking it up .1 every minute. I plateau at 7.5 mph, then fiddle around with the incline to make it a little less tedious and get some hill work in.

Friday: Same as Wednesday.

Saturday: Skate ski for around two hours. This is at Trapp’s Nordic Center in Stowe. It’s hilly and generally a really hard workout.

Sunday: Run outside, comfortable pace for 80 minutes, usually on a hilly route. Followed by 30 minutes of running in the pool. (I’m increasing this a little each week and will level out at 90 minutes running outside soon.)


1) I couldn’t survive the treadmill runs without my iPod. I’ll share some playlists in a future post.

2) Pool running is a great thing. I’m not convinced it’s quite equivalent to dry land running, but it’s helpful for recovery. On my long days I feel much better for that extra half-hour in the pool than if I just called it quits after 90 minutes on the road.

3) I read once that the great Kenyans start their runs incredibly slowly, then just keep building. I’m going for something like that with the 6 mph starts. It feels like a really safe, gentle way to begin a run. And notching it up .1 mph per minute makes for a controlled, gradual acceleration.

4) Come March, I’m going to take one of my easy days outside, then keep adding more days outside in early spring. I don’t want to be a soft, bland hothouse tomato.