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

Wed, 14 Apr 2004 19:12:43 -0400

Judgment Days


One lesson I've learned from teaching running classes is that you can't trust your first impression of a new runner. One who starts the slowest could become the longest-lasting. One who doesn't look like you think a runner "should" could go the fastest.

Natalie Provost was new to the University of Oregon last fall. She wrote her age as 18 on the info sheet but could have passed as a high school freshman.

She looked frail even by the slim standards of distance runners. Her running form was... let's just say it was far from fluid. Runners in my class who didn't know her by name identified her by that form.

Natalie fooled me. She had talents that became visible only when compared with the other runners who looked older and stronger, but weren't faster. She had invisible traits of mind that would separate her from her classmates.

I never tried to change Natalie's form. If she had asked, I might have made suggestions. But if the quirks didn't trouble her, they shouldn't bother me.

Why tamper with what worked for her, trying to replace it with form that might not fit her? She already could cruise her training runs at sub-seven-minute pace -- and outrun most of the men.

Natalie never asked me if she should run a marathon. If she had, I might have discouraged her -- told her to add a few more years of physical maturity.

Instead of asking IF she could run one, she asked, "Where would you recommend I run my first marathon? I heard that Napa has a good one."

I agreed that it does. Next time we met, she said, "I signed up online for the Napa Valley Marathon."

I take no credit for Natalie's race in Napa. The closest I came to helping was giving her a book. Whether or not she followed its schedule, she never said and I never asked.

She never consulted me about her training, and she reported on it only once. That was to say that her long run had reached three hours, "and the distance was about 23 miles."

The last time I saw her between the end of fall term and the Napa starting line was in early January. She was running mile track intervals in the snow.

This told me a lot about her determination. But such drive isn't always a plus in an event where it can conflict with the virtues of patience and restraint.

The only advice I gave her at the Napa Valley start was unsolicited: "Hold yourself back at the start, where the temptation is to go too fast."

She didn't hold back. I saw Natalie twice in the first half of this marathon, and both times she was among the top five women. This wasn't a good place for a novice to be.

Later I stood near the finish with Natalie's parents. "We saw her at about 16 miles," said Mom. Dad added, "She still looked good."

I tried to prepare them for their daughter not looking good when she reached us. Expecting a big slowdown from when I'd last seen her, I said, "She should be here at about 3:20, which would be a terrific time for her first marathon."

I'd barely made this guess when Dad yelled, "There's she is!" She didn't hear my shout of amazement at seeing the clock reading 3:08.

Only six women, all older and more experienced, beat Natalie this day. She reminded me again not to let first impressions predict who will catch fire as a runner, and how long or hot she'll burn.


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