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

Fri, 4 Jun 2004 17:05:26 -0400

Running Up the Years


Running Long, my next book due out this fall from Barnes & Noble, comes with a subtitle: What a Half-Century on the Run Has Taught. It's a stretch to claim 50 years of running. My first timed mile did come in 1954, but the sport didn't settle in to stay with me for another five years after that.

These years, whatever their accurate count, are on my mind now for several reasons. It's anniversary time for the first seasons, I was back in Iowa where they happened and at the same time of year, and I'm giving a talk in June with the "what the years taught" title.

The book that the talk summarizes is a practical memoir. Memoirs are personal stories, and mine have value to other runners only if they can take away lessons from this reading.

Evolution as a runner typically passes through three stages: running for fitness, running for competition and running for life. Each part of the Running Long book looks into one of these stages. I introduce the first of those below, and the others in later columns.

Running First

You probably started running the right way. You had the benefit of two running booms -- and all the books and magazines, coaches and advisers they produced -- to support you.

You started by running at a relaxed pace for short distances, or running mixed with walk breaks, or walking mixed with run breaks, or purely by walking at first. You progressed slowly and steadily. I did none of it, instead starting to run in what you could now tell me was the wrong way.

Back in the middle years of the last century, there was only one reason to run: to compete in races. There was only one way to run: hard and fast. There was only one type of runner: young and male, and very few of us at that.

That was me then. Though I'd dabbled in running earlier, I date my running start from my first official race -- on April Fools Day 1958. I hadn't really trained for that first mile, and had no idea how to train.

Running books and magazines were rarities then and didn't yet reach small towns in Iowa. Coaches weren't schooled in training runners, so they simply raced us into shape as the season went along. If we weren't racing against other schools, we were competing against our teammates at home.

The "system" of that era was to jump into the competitive pond and swim or sink. Good luck let me survive this plunge.

I was lucky enough to start running at age 14, fitter overall than I'd ever be again. Before becoming a specialist runner I had played many sports -- football in the fall, basketball in winter, baseball in spring, swimming in summer.

Back then I was flexible from being active in so many ways. Running would tighten me up.

Back then I still had an upper body. Running would peel away 20 pounds, much of it muscle I'd built while working on a farm.

Most of the family's food came from local farms and gardens, not from supermarkets. My diet would never again be better than the one I had without thinking about it in the 1950s.

Given this high level of general fitness in the beginning, I adapted quickly to racing. I was much slower to learn the basic rules of healthy running, picking them up piecemeal for a long time to come.

You might not jump as deeply into running, as soon as I did. But you have a big advantage over the beginner-me. You came along in a more enlightened age.

You know there are better ways to start than my early way. Part One of the Running Long book looks into the lessons a runner must learn first if the running is to last.

(Next issue: The best racing years.)


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