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

Thu, 23 May 2013 04:53:37 -0400

Once a Marathoner


(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 September 2006 issue.)

Once upon a time I ran marathons regularly, twice most years, sometimes more often. Then suddenly I stopped trying them at all. While I never used the R-word (retired), this looked more likely with each passing year. Those had stretched to six when 2006 began.

It’s no coincidence that other roles grew to fill a void left by not going this distance myself. In those marathon-less years I did more talking to, coaching of and writing for marathoners than ever before. I attended Jeff Galloway’s and Dick Beardsley’s camps with marathoners, formed a Marathon Team to train runners and signed on as a columnist for Marathon & Beyond. The less distance I ran, the more support I was free to give.

Yet I never stopped wanting be an active marathoner at least one more time. I didn’t want my latest marathon, where little went as it could and should have, to remain forever my last. I needed to run at least one more, no matter how long it took me to get to it and through it.

My next starting line was a long time coming. Finishing took… well, we’ll get to that toward the end of this diary of a six-year marathon.

MARCH 2000. You can’t fake a marathon. Maybe you can run a 10K without training for it, but not a marathon. I had published a book about training honestly for marathons. My problem was remembering to follow that advice myself. Memory failed me in midrun at the 2000 Napa Valley Marathon.

I came here without thinking of running that far that weekend. I wasn’t ready, having run no longer an hour since a HALF-marathon race almost two months earlier. My plan was to run the first 10 miles or so with Jan Seeley, the publisher of Marathon & Beyond.

Rich Benyo, M&B’s editor, co-directs Napa Valley. He insisted I wear a race number even if not planning to finish.

The sport’s great thinker George Sheehan once said, “When you pin on a number, you pledge to do your best.” I didn’t consciously take this oath but now wore the evidence of having done so.

At 10 miles I told Jan, “I’ll run a few more.” At 13, “I’ll keep going as long as you do.” Jan was running 16 miles that day to prepare for a later marathon, and she stuck to that plan. As she stopped, I told her, “I’ll go a little farther and then catch a ride.”

More miles down the road, no ride could be found. I was told, “You can wait for the sag wagon, but it could be another hour before the last runner gets here.”

Rain had started to fall. Running mixed with walking seemed a better choice than standing and waiting. This later became walks mixed with brief runs, all the way to an eventual finish.

SUMMER 2000. Another truism of marathoning: The less you train before, the more you suffer during and after (and usually vice versa; more training equals less suffering). My hurting was mild on Napa Valley race day compared to the after-effects that struck later.

At first I thought that the accidental marathon had let me off easily. The post-race pains were no worse or longer-lasting than if I’d trained right, maybe because I’d run so slowly and walked so much.

Normal running resumed soon, probably too soon. Long after the soreness was gone, the tiredness persisted.

My defenses stayed down, so low that they couldn’t repel a mysterious illness. Its symptoms were flu-like – low-grade fever, persistent cough, little appetite, heavy fatigue – and they hung on for two full months.

I ran almost nothing for those months, and began to worry that I’d never feel better again. Just getting from one end of the day to the other was a “marathon.”

My doctor never identified that illness. The best he could do was rule out the worst possibilities.

The long-lasting fever finally cooled. More months passed as I inched back toward normal runs. You appreciate more the unlong, unfast everydayness of running after you’ve lost them for a while, or what you thought might be forever.

FALL 2005. Long after recovering fully from what I now call the “marathon fever” of 2000, I still avoided making the efforts that racing required. Regular runs continued, of course, but in all those years none ever topped one hour.

I still went to races, but now just to watch other runners. “Why aren’t you running?” they would ask. Two answers. The first, “I forgot to train,” usually drew a laugh. The second, “I like to run too much to race,” brought a look of bewilderment, as if I were speaking poorly translated Swahili.

Here’s a clearer translation: Daily runs mean much more to me now than races. If racing jeopardizes my normal running, as it did after Napa Valley 2000, then the race is not worth the risk.

Besides, I’ve raced enough for anyone’s lifetime, more than 750 times. What’s left to prove?

Well, there is one thing. Is it to show that the training program prescribed to my Marathon Teams and in my Marathon Training book is good enough to use myself? No, I already know that from many earlier go-rounds.

The answer that comes closer to the truth than any other is that before too much more time passes, I’d like to correct my Napa Valley 2000 mistakes – in training, planning, pacing, recovery.

Maybe this one won’t be pretty either. (When have the late miles of my marathons ever been less than a struggle?) But I want to walk away proud of having done this one as right as I know how.

If the next marathon happens to be my last, I can shrug and say I’ve had my turn. Now I can focus fully on giving that chance to others.

And if this final marathon results in a personal-worst time, no problem. It would complete the perfect bookends of my marathon life: PR in the first to PW in the last, a mere 39 years and two or more hours apart.

(Continued in RC 991.)

[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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