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

Thu, 24 Jan 2013 04:58:07 -0500

Barely Beyond


(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 2010 issue.)

My first Marathon & Beyond column began with wordplay to justify the use of this space by someone who had stopped running marathons and never really gotten started in ultras. My “beyond” didn’t mean running longer than 26.2 miles. It referred to the after-life of an ex-marathoner and the supporting roles I could still play.

Soon after that first column ran, my support of marathoners became more direct and personal than ever before. I began coaching a marathon training team, and these runners in turn inspired (or shamed) me into a return to marathoning. These recent experiences have filled many a page in M&B.

But I’ve had little to say here about running ultras because my history beyond the marathon is as incomplete as it is ancient. Which isn’t to say I failed miserably at ultrarunning. There are no bad experiences if they teach good lessons. I learned first that I didn’t have the will to see these races through, which added to my admiration for runners who do.

ROCKLIN, CALIFORNIA, November 1970. The best race I ever saw – not on television, film or tape but as an eye-witness – was an ultra. For most sustained drama and strongest personal investment, the greatest race I’ve seen was the national 50-mile championship in Rocklin.

As one of the runners that day I saw little of how this race played out until the very end. We repeatedly looped a five-mile course, and as the leaders lapped me I switched from running to spectating. Dropped out, that is.

I’d like to say that I quit my race to watch the one upfront. In fact, the miles had taken their toll on me before the top two runners roared past, locked in a duel. At the lap-counter’s checkpoint where I stopped, I heard that “Skip Houk and Bob Deines are on American-record pace.”

From then on I took care not to favor one frontrunner over the other with my cheers. Bob Deines had become a good friend and sometime training partner, but I also knew his rival, Skip Houk. Road racing of that era was so underpopulated that almost everyone knew everyone.

Houk had led most of the way. Then Deines entered the last lap 50 yards ahead. Ex-boxer Houk had lost his lead but not his fight. Deines came into view of the finish first. Seconds later someone yelled, “My God, there’s Houk! He’s closing in!” His stocky figure looked all the more so compared to Deines’ skin and bones.

Houk closed faster, shrinking the gap to 10 yards before the distance ran out. He might have won if the race had been a tenth-mile longer. Their times, two seconds apart, both broke the national record by almost 23 minutes. What they did was all the more impressive because of what I couldn’t do on the same course that same day.

SANTA ROSA, CALIFORNIA, January 1971. One of the best races I ever ran was a baby ultra. In my sketchy history beyond marathon distance, this was the only race I ever finished. My career, if you can call it that, as a would-be ultrarunner was as brief as it was dismal.

It took me exactly 19 months and four failed tries in five attempts to realize that I wasn’t cut out to go this far. Or maybe I just never trained enough for it, since my non-race runs beyond marathon distance totaled exactly two – ever.

My first ultra attempt resulted in my longest distance to date – 35 miles. This came on the first day of a stage races that was scheduled to reach 100 miles on the third day. The first round left me too sore and tired to answer the bell for the second. My next try ended even sooner. Stopping at 30 miles of the 50 let me see the Deines-Houk finish detailed above.

My last try at ultrarunning yielded the longest run ever without scheduled walk breaks. This came in the same 50-mile race as the year before, on the same five-mile course. Here I came two laps closer to finishing but still couldn’t push past 40 miles.

Each of these failed attempts to finish left me with a consolation prize. But only one race beyond 26.2 miles was an unqualified success. No surprise that it also was the only one I went into well prepared: first with the 30-mile training run of sorts in the Deines-Houk race of late 1970, then another 30 with Jeff Kroot (my longest-ever true training run) about a month later, and finally a marathon race (more training-in-disguise) a month after that.

Then I entered a 32-mile race from Santa Rosa to Petaluma and back. Today’s ultra runners who climb mountains on trails might call this race of little more than a 50K on flat roads “nothing but a slightly long marathon.” It seemed plenty long to me, thank you, as I passed the marathon checkpoint with almost another 10K to go.

This time I didn’t stop, didn’t slow but actually upped the pace a bit in those extra miles. I would have taken more pride in my finish that day if I’d known it wouldn’t be the first of many in ultras but the one and only.

UPDATE: More than 40 years after Bob Deines’s record 50-mile race, we still stay in touch. He lives and runs in the quiet countryside of northern California. His runs are much shorter now, with his “ultra” now measured in years rather than miles.

[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.]
Previous Posts