Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Distance-Only Experiment

About 40 minutes before the start of the 1982 Trinity Invitational in Louisville, KY, coach Worful took me aside, looked me in the eye, and said: "I talked to the coach at Floyd Central. He told me about two of his freshman. He said they're animals." I absorbed the information, like most things, with little more than a raised eyebrow. Coach Worful, who I can call Steve now, already knew me better than most ever have. He knew he didn't need to say much.

It had been his idea to enter me in JV meets even though I would have been 3rd man on the varsity team. This was my first freshman-only race, and he knew -- even if I didn't -- that it would be important for me to see how I stacked up with others my age. The 3K course started with a loop around a baseball field, proceeded across a valley and back, and then looped around a large flat rectangle of a park. In the middle of the long side of the rectangle, with about 3/4 mile to go, I was running in front. One of the "animals" pulled up beside me and said "you're dying boy." I turned my head toward him, furrowed my brow, and retorted, "the hell I am." Then I picked it up.

In the summer before my junior year, coach gave me a training book by Arthur Lydiard. I soaked it up. We conferred about workouts, but I generally planned the training for myself and teammate Dave Lawhorn. In retrospect, I see that he expected it was my time to shine -- and that I'd be out front at the varsity level. The season opener, as always, was the St. Xavier campus run. Several strong seniors from the region took it out hard. I cruised, well off the pace. I made up a lot of ground in the same final 3/4 mile that had marked the end of the freshman 3K. I did not win, however. Again, coach took me aside. He told me about how much he thrilled in the showdown races between Joe Beuchler and Jim Sapienza, who graduated the year before I started high school. Neither was content finishing behind the other. They pushed each other to remarkable performances. I didn't need to respond; coach had not criticized my race. Still, the image of Joe and Jim racing gnawed at me -- exactly as Steve had intended.

The next big invitational race was Covington Catholic in Cincinnati. The race attracted runners from a wide area -- so we could expect good competition. The start was one of those high school monstrosities -- stretched across a vast field of thick grass. The start strategy for front-runners in high school cross country is fairly simple. Get out fast enough to stay clear of the stampede. I did that, along with a small group of others with the same strategy. I didn't have to think, "oh, time to take control of the race." But I found myself in front, and unwavering. I didn't bring to mind the footsteps behind me, or my willingess to go into greater oxygen debt. I just felt my fingers tingling, and heard the steps behind me grow fainter.

Coach approached me after the race, smiling. He said he had looked at my face when I passed him along the course, and that "he knew." Steve was expert at knowing. He had good success as a coach - because his main concern was knowing his athletes.

He knew the conventional wisdom about training, too, and was relatively conservative about sticking to it. Conventional training wisdom went (and still goes) something like this: on some days run longer and slower than race pace, and on other days run shorter and faster than race pace. So like every other high school cross country program, that is what we did. Daily runs of 6-9 miles alternated with interval workouts. Long run on Sunday.

We were talking one afternoon -- as we always did -- when coach wondered outloud, "what would happen if your training consisted only of distance runs?" He knew I did not readily accept convention of any kind, including training wisdom. I did, however, accept most of his carefully reasoned and articulated arguments. And his answer to his own question was one of these. Considering the success I was enjoying, he argued, it wouldn't be worth the risk to answer the question with an experiment. That reasoning has held for me ever since.

Until now.

Things work a little differently after the age of forty. First -- I've got kids, and the first two are getting big enough to start carrying the torch. Second -- I've got a professional life. I work with young people who are ready to launch teaching careers of their own. Third -- my connective tissue has become persnickety. That means it reacts quickly to overwork and slowly to rehabilitation.

If you've read this deep into my post, you probably have kept up enough to know my achilles tendon woes since Western States last year. Yes, I've had nearly a year of difficulty dealing with the connective tissue at my heels. I've tried lots of things, and actually trained a fair amount in the intervening time. In my quest to find habits that will allow me to keep running, I've eliminated speed. I've not run faster than 7:30 minute/mile pace in months. I've resisted all temptation to run fast, including by avoiding races. My first race since February will be the Mohican 100 in June.

Even though Mohican is a very long race -- and performing well does not depend going fast at any point -- it will be the first time I have entered a race having trained with distance runs only. Steve and I will finally have some data pertinent to the question he asked a quarter century ago. And I will report those data here.

Why do people train for races by sometimes running faster and shorter than the race? Why not just train at race pace? Well, I'm not really going to answer that here -- because better technical explanations can be found elsewhere. [Try "The Lore of Running" by Tim Noakes.] I will comment, though, that I have valued variety in my training, and that the most simple variable is speed. So in the past I have made sure to do workouts with sprints, workouts with tempo running, quality distance runs, and slow distance runs. If for no other reason, varying speed keeps running fresh, fun, and motivating.

Speed isn't the only variable, though, and I have had to focus on different kinds of variety the last few months. I have run more gravel roads, found new trails, run more pavement, and of course, traveled to "the mountain" a couple times each week.

That brings me to my original intent in posting today: tomorrow a small group of us will start a 3-day 100+ mile run through the high country north and south of Damascus. We will cross White Top, and circle Mt. Rogers, the highest peaks in Virginia.

View High Country 3-day in a larger map

We will be running slowly, but the terrain is varied and interesting, and I haven't done a stage run since the "Tour De Appalachia" several summers ago. Byron Backer came along then, and is back to run this "3-day high country 100." Annette Bednoskey, Jenny Nichols, and Jenny Anderson are coming along for at least parts of the run -- and I'll report back on the results.

I look forward to spending a few days on the mountain. The days are long, the sun is hot, and the air is thick. The trees promise shade, though, and the valleys water, and the mountaintops wind. And I will add thousands more strides -- all slow -- to the experiment posed by my high school coach.


  1. That will be a wonderful loop over a 3 day period. My favorite portion of that is the AT from Damascus to Cross Mountain and then back to Damascus on the Iron Mountain Trail. I hope you and everyone else has a great time.

  2. I love how you weave together those strands of yourself that were created decades ago with the present.