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

Sat, 15 Sep 2007 06:17:12 -0400

Behind the Times


When asked to speak before a group of runners, I used to talk mostly about myself. Now it's mainly about those I teach and coach.

This happened most recently at Dick Beardsley's marathon camp in Minnesota. As the campers arrived, we coaches handed them a binder.

Each of us was profiled there. The final question was, "What are your goals for camp?"

My answer: "To get to know each camper and coach as an individual, not just as a PR or a time goal. This is the most time all year that I get to spend with runners when they're not running off and leaving me."

Talking to the group, I told stories about runners I've gotten to know back home. Their PRs might have labeled them as runners who finish midpack on back, perhaps in some minds unworthy of entering or finishing races.

I know better because I know the men behind the times. Through our marathon training program and beyond, I give support to them, worry for them, celebrate with them.

Three men received little or no mention that day at camp. One was an ex-football lineman-turned-marathoner, one an Iraq-tested soldier, one a doctor-triathlete.

All had moved past my program in their own ways. This was to be a big week for all three.

MATT WAS ONE of the biggest runners I've ever coached. Though slimmed down from his football days, his weight easily qualified him as a Clydesdale.

He took a beginning-running class from me, then signed on with the Marathon Team. Matt took longer to finish than anyone on that team ever has, but he finished. And he never missed a training run, always running with good humor and great pride.

Matt moved on to physical therapy school. He's now job-hunting and has listed me as a reference. A call about him reached me at the marathon camp.

I e-mailed back, "Matt's determination to show up as scheduled and get the job done, to take direction from a teacher/coach, and to be a good classmate and teammate, even when he trained and raced behind the group most of the time, will serve him well professionally." The marathon didn't make him this way. These traits made him a marathoner.

ANOTHER E-MAIL reached me at camp, from a runner named Jeff. He and his son Robon both PRed in the half-marathon that weekend.

At the Eugene Marathon this spring, Jeff had finished carrying an Army banner to honor his two soldier sons. Robon was then in Iraq, his brother in Afghanistan.

Robon came home this summer, to await the birth a child and his own next assignment. Both arrived the same week, his daughter and his orders back to Iraq. He would leave before the Portland Marathon after doing most of the training (up to 21 miles).

"What will you do in Iraq?" I asked him. "Kick open doors," he said. The risks of doing that run high.

It's one thing to read how many men and women serve in the war zone, and how many fall there. It's quite another to know one of them. Robon's teammates worry for this soldier.

AS WE SAT DOWN to breakfast at the marathon camp, I thought about Orlando, a medical doctor from our training group. At that hour he was starting Ironman Wisconsin.

This race was his idea. I know less than one-third of what a triathlete needs to practice, and coached him only on that part. It would be like no running he'd known -- a marathon after a 115-mile swim/bike warmup.

My day put his into perspective. I ate breakfast; he swam. I drove to Fargo, waited, then flew to Denver; he biked. I flew home to Eugene; he ran.

After greeting my wife and dog, I rushed to the computer to check again on Orlando. He'd just finished. I shouted a long-distance cheer to him.

He told me later, "Many thoughts cross one's mind when enduring physical stress like this: family, friends, other life struggles. Many things can fall into perspective: what's really important in life beyond being competitive in a sport, times, etc. Among the many thoughts I had throughout the day was how appreciative I am of our team."

Orlando wasn't just the 2015th finisher. He was my only reason for following this race all day long.
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