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

Mon, 24 Dec 2001 13:37:03 -0500

On-the-Job Training


Many of us wear the label "serious runner" as a badge of honor and courage, and sometimes it is. But I took running seriously for only one year, and it was a disaster.

If I'd kept trying that hard, you wouldn't be reading this page now. I would have stopped running after that worst year, and the next 40 years wouldn't have happened as they did.

My career as a racer peaked in 1961, as a high school senior, when running was still a delightful new plaything. Later that year, as a college freshman, running became my job and racing soon hit bottom.

I didn't go to Drake University to establish a career, to join campus organizations, to form friendships or to find a future wife. I went there to major in running.

Drake paid me well for that. I went there on full scholarship, then as now wrongly called a "free ride."

The ride wasn't free. We runners paid for it by training two hours every afternoon of the school year and racing in school colors once a week.

The burden of having to earn my ride weighed heavily on me. So did being surrounded with teammates who were also opponents of mine.

I came to Drake as one of the fastest runners in my state. But so did everyone else on the team, and some came from faster states than Iowa.

We had to prove ourselves all over again, to each other and to ourselves. This started right away, as every training run became a race.

In our first true race, coach Bob Karnes lined us up to race a mile before a Saturday football crowd. I expected to run at least as fast as the PR I'd left off with that spring.

I ran 10 seconds slower. Never mind that I'd done better only a few times before and had never started a season this well.

My standards had gone up... way up... too high up. That day I fell into a pattern of self-flagellation over "bad" races.

At first I beat up on myself only on paper, in my diary. Later the abuse became physical.

After a slower-than-hoped race that October, I ripped off my spikes and took a series of mad dashes on the crushed-brick track, in bare feet. You could call it a "punishment run."

The effect was the opposite of the intent. From then on my racing went from not bad to truly bad and then to worse.

My mile time that freshman year fell almost half a minute behind what I'd run in high school. And by majoring in running I hadn't made friends with anyone who wasn't a teammate, and hadn't made time for proper studying. My grade-point average barely kept me eligible to run.

I had to get out of this job. And I did as soon as the last race ended that spring. I quit training and saw no reason even to start again.

My early retirement, at age 19, lasted only a month. One day in June my dad had dropped me at a swimming pool a few miles from home. He couldn't pick me up later and, with no other ride, I started walking... then running.

That run, short as it was, produced a life-changing plan. I would return to Drake but give up my scholarship in exchange for the freedom to train in ways that worked better for me.

Coach Karnes readily accepted my plan because he had nothing to lose. He hadn't gotten any mileage from me, anyway, and now had a "ride" to give someone new. Anything I could contribute to his team would be a bonus.

I called the restart a "new career." It featured a new set of records and a new approach in which running wasn't so vocational.

In the next school year I broke most of the PRs from my old career. Better yet, I became a true student -- making friends who weren't runners, making good grades, and making time to learn a trade by working on the school newspaper.

Writing about running later became my job. But the running itself never again was more than a hobby.

The point of this confession, if it has one beyond personal nostalgia, is that running can be a wonderful hobby but a terrible job. It can suffer when it gets too serious.

Previous Posts