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

Tue, 24 Apr 2001 10:43:15 -0400

Beginning Here


Students in my beginning-running class this winter were only vaguely aware, if at all, that Hayward Field is one of the shrines of the sport. To them it was just a classroom where they met twice a week.

During our sessions, the students mingled with hotshot young athletes who knew all too well the meaning of Hayward. They finished their morning runs by striding the straightaways at speeds that brought gasps from the students.

The hotshots sometimes acted 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 acted annoyed when a beginner moved out of their way too slowly, as if it were their track instead of one we'd reserved at this hour.

This scene gives a mini-look at the sport as a whole. The idea is afloat among longtime resident runners that the second running boom is a mirage... that the new runners aren't Real Runners 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 the newcomers won't find the same reasons as we did to keep going?

We all have to start somewhere. Here's where and how one of my students started:

MY FIRST class ended as it had begun, with a one-mile test. It finished just as it had started for a student who calls herself Max.

Again she brought up the rear. At first this had discouraged her, but at the end she was thrilled by how far she had come in the past two months.

So was I. The last-place runner had our best success story.

In the first day's mile, Max was slowest by almost a minute at 11:02. Another teacher suggested dropping any student who fell that far behind the group.

I wouldn't hear of it. This would have violated my most basic belief that running can do anyone good. These runs did no one more good than Max.

Before starting the final mile, she asked, "What splits do I need to run to break nine minutes?" We helped each other with the math.

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. "Yeesss!" she shouted while thrusting her fist in the air.

Max ran a 5-K race during the term. She later ran a full hour, double the minimum for this entry-level class.

In my final talk with the group I predicted that Max would run longer than any of them, both in distance and in years. She'd already told me, "My plan now is to run a 10-K this spring and a half-marathon this summer, then train for a marathon in the fall."

The sport's lasting health depends on recruiting and nurturing beginners. I'm leaning increasingly their way -- in my latest book, Running 101, now in the classes, and soon as moderator of the Runner's World Online beginning-runners' forum.

I'd rather work with a Max than the hotshots who think she doesn't belong on the same track (or even in the same sport) with them. How many of them can improve their mile time by two seconds, let alone two minutes, in two months? How many still feel as excited as someone first finding out how much better her legs can work?

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