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

Sat, 25 Oct 2008 05:46:58 -0400

Beginning to Break


[rerun from October 1998 RC]

My history in ultrarunning is as undistinguished as it is ancient. It includes, all from the early 1970s, one attempt at a 100 (ended at 70 miles) and two aborted 50s (35 and 40 miles). The longest finish was a 50K, in 1970.

My memories of ultras are as good, though, as they are old. Having dabbled in these events, I'll always appreciate the effort involved for runners who do them often and well. And I'll always thank an ultrarunner for teaching me to walk.

Tom Osler gave all runners permission to take walking breaks, and showed us how, in his Serious Runners Handbook. I edited this book, but even earlier had experimented with the technique of breaking a big distance into small pieces.

My convincer that run-rest routine worked was a 1971 race in Rocklin, California. The distance was 100 miles, which was farther than I'd ever run in a WEEK, and I now had just one day to finish it.

I didn't finish but did cover 70 miles. This not only would remain the longest run of my life but also contributed heavily to my biggest week.

This ultra was on a Saturday, and the previous Sunday I'd run a marathon. Token runs on the days in between (I never skipped a day back then) boosted the week's total 110 miles, or 30 higher than anytime before or since.

Back to the 70-mile day: I wasn't terribly tired -- or sore -- at that distance. But I'd already been on the road for 14 hours, it was two o'clock in the morning, no one else was visible, and I didn't see much point in running more laps on the 2-1/2-mile road course.

When I told the lap-scorer of my impending dropout, he said, "What do you mean you're quitting? You only have 30 miles to go!"

That 30 would have nearly matched my longest previous run. But even as this abbreviated "100" was a failure in one sense, it was an eye-popper in other ways. Most obviously this was double my longest non-stop distance, plus another eight miles.

This longest run ever was also my first use of intentional resting along the way. The term "walk breaks" doesn't work here, because these were full STOPS averaging about one minute for each mile run.

In the early 1970s, I still had the misguided idea that running every step was required. So I just milled around for a few minutes during these breaks, then started exactly at the leaving-off point.

Recovery from these 70 miles was quicker than I'd ever known it after conventional runs of less than half this distance. Lost sleep was more of a problem the next day than sore feet and legs.

The running pace had held up much better than it would have in a non-stop run. It averaged about 7:30, or less than a minute per mile slower than my marathon the week before.

This experience made me a lasting believer in breaks. It led eventually, thanks to Tom Osler's influence, to the run-walks that I now promote and practice at small fractions of ultradistances.

I never tried to clear up the unfinished business of that 100-mile race. Marathons are my upper limit now, and I'm still putting the old lessons to work in these mini-ultras.
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