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

Thu, 22 Nov 2012 06:16:21 -0500

Among the Young


(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the January 2008 issue.)

Twenty-three isn’t as old as it used to be. At that age I was racing toward the retirement that had already snagged most of my contemporaries. I had one more step to take, up to the marathon, before joining them.

At 23, I wasn’t young among marathoners of that era, when most runners stopped too soon. Now it’s a kid-like age in this sport, when most marathoners could be the parents of 23-year-olds.

I teach classes of college-age runners, but my proposal for adding a marathon class went nowhere. The given reasons: You can’t spread it over two terms, as the buildup in mileage would have required. You can’t meet just once a week for three or more hours, to accommodate the all-important long run.

The unspoken reasons: You won’t find enough students (12 was minimum enrollment at the time) to put this class into play. You won’t interest kids in running this far, which is too tough for them anyway.

I surrendered at school and instead started coaching a marathon group, open to all ages, through a local running store. A 2007 team trained for the first Eugene Marathon, which started on the university campus and ended at the school’s football stadium.

Never had so many of our Team’s runners been so young. Fourteen students ran there with us, and none was older than 23. We had a winner in his age-group at 19 and a woman who qualified for Boston at 20.

All but one of these kids finished the Eugene race. Lack of interest or toughness wasn’t the problem for the woman of 21 who didn’t finish. She might have cared too much and tried too hard.

Before telling her story, I’ll recall an earlier one with a very different ending. It taught me not to underestimate the young.

Natalie Provost was new to the University of Oregon when she took my 10K class. She noted her age as 18 on the info sheet but could have passed for a high school freshman. She looked frail even by the slim standards of distance runners. Her running form was... let’s just say far from fluid. But she had invisible traits of mind that would separate her from her classmates.

I never tried to change Natalie’s form. 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 could 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 first.

Instead 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 training schedule, she never said and I never asked. She reported on her training 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 in March, she was running mile track intervals in January 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 early, 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 between 3:20 and 3:30, 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 the freshman Natalie that day.

Before taking on the teaching of college-age runners, I shared some prejudices that the old have about them: more interested in sitdown entertainment than the gritty realities of long running. Not true, I quickly learned. Not true, anyway, with those who volunteer for my classes. Especially not true for those who don’t want to stop when the class offerings run out at 10K training.

These runners run for the same reasons that their elders do. If something inspires them and someone advises them, they keep going. When word went out that Eugene would have a marathon, 21-year-old Whitney Davies joined a dozen other students in my training group.

Like a proud papa (or grandpa), I waited at the finish line for these runners complete this graduation exercise. My clipboard held a predicted time range for each of our runners, and Whitney was overdue.

Then I was told, “I saw one of your runners on a stretcher at the 25-mile mark.” The more names I checked off the list, the more likely the fallen runner had to be Whitney. One of her teammates finally confirmed it.

By then she was headed for a hospital emergency room with a suspected case of hyponatremia (low sodium). The best outcome would have been for the IV to act as a miracle drug, and for Whitney to jump off the hospital bed and say, “I’m going back to the course and walk that final mile.” Her doctors and parents wouldn’t have allowed this, even if she’d felt up to it. Which she didn’t.

Whitney fell a mile short of finishing her marathon but didn’t fail. She ran harder than anyone on my teams ever has, and for as long as she could. If anyone failed, it was I for not coaching her quite well enough.

My hope was to honor her at our victory party the next Sunday. We would return to the marathon course as a group to run the final mile with her. Where the finish line had been, I would drape a “finisher” medal around her neck and give the same hug that all the others had received there a week earlier.

Whitney balked at joining us that day at all, feeling she had nothing to celebrate as the only incomplete marathoner at the party. Good for her. She wants to finish the right way, the only true way. A young runner who thinks this way will go far, and not just as a runner.

UPDATE: Whitney Davies ran, and finished, a marathon five months after her first attempt. Natalie Provost Bak still excels in races both below and above marathon distance.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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