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

Thu, 23 May 2002 08:11:02 -0400

Lasting Lessons


A recent RC page began by telling of my upcoming talk to high school runners in Alaska (Issue 413). At the time I didn't know what to tell these kids. Now, prompted by my host, I'm headed north with a handout in hand.

These notes aren't long. They take up less than half a sheet of paper.

Yet these few concepts allowed me to steer safely through my early running. These ideas kept me from stopping when I'd barely started. They appear here with background notes added for you readers who have more patience with wordiness.

I learned my most important lessons in the first year. But learning what I knew and how to put it into words took much longer. Without these early lessons, I wouldn't be here now to pass them around.

1. Run your own race. The other runners are there to help you run better than you could alone. You compete against yourself, the distance, the conditions and your previous times.

In my first mile race I tried to beat everyone who ran that day -- and only managed to beat myself. I started with the leaders and dropped out after one lap -- out of the race and, for all I cared, out of the sport. My coach wouldn't let me quit but made me promise to start slower next time and to finish what I'd started -- even if it meant finishing last.

2. Race for PRs. Personal records are your truest standard of success. They give you a chance (but no guarantee) to win every time, no matter how you place.

Once I posted a mile time, it became the one to beat. The PR fell again and again, by a full minute within the first year. While I took care of the times, ever-higher placings took care of themselves.

3. Pace yourself evenly. This means working against your natural urges to surge when you're fresh and to slow when you're tired. Hold back early, and hold on later.

Early experience taught me that times improved quickest by spreading effort evenly over the whole distance. I adopted a style that went against the grain of high school racing: resist the starting stampede, then begin pushing the pace as other runners slow theirs.

4. Use races as training. You get better at racing BY racing. No form of "speedwork" is more effective than a race itself, so race often -- and sometimes longer and shorter than your main distance.

We did little else but race at my school (as noted in RC 413). When not running actual meets my first season, we raced half-miles among ourselves. All this racing improved my "half" time by 25 seconds and landed me in the state meet as a freshman.

5. Run overs-and-unders. Train for your race distance by going a little longer but at a slower pace. Train for your race speed by going a little faster but at a shorter distance.

Half-mile racing became "underdistance training" for the mile in my second season, when I placed in that event at the state meet. The mile was the longest race for high schoolers back then, but my time-trials of two and three miles served the "overdistance" purpose.

6. Train hard-easy. Some hard days are a must, because racing is tough, but you can't run hard all the time. More days of the week must be easy than hard.

Our school took hard-easy to the extreme, as we either raced or rested. My written records don't reach back that far, but I'm guessing that the resting days slightly outnumbered the racing days.

7. Run regularly. You get back from this sport almost exactly what you put into it. If you run most days each week, and most weeks each year, you get better at it. If you don't, you don't.

Seeing no future as a five-foot-five basketball player, I quit that sport in midseason of my sophomore year to become a year-round runner. That first winter's training didn't amount to much, but anything was better than the nothing I would have done while riding the basketball bench.

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