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

Thu, 30 May 2013 04:57:38 -0400

On the Road Again


(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, continued from RC 990, comes from the September 2006 issue.)

FEBRUARY 2006. This time I’ve planned and prepared for a marathon. Napa Valley would have been the logical choice: the same race on the sixth anniversary of my trying to fake one there.

But Napa wasn’t available to me this year. The Marathon Team that I coach was running there, and they expected me to cheer them along on their big day.

My marathon could wait another month, until another anniversary. I chose the Yakima River Canyon in Washington state for several reasons – its rural and point-to-point course (my favorite type), its friendly co-directors (Bob and Lenore Dolphin), its uncrowded field numbering in the hundreds, and its April Fool’s date.

Only after my training had taken its next-to-last step up in length did my entry go in. This one passed three hours, and the program would top out two weeks later at 3½ hours – or about 21 miles. Would it be enough?

Runners on the Napa Valley Marathon Team were thinking the same. Going to the starting line, you’re never sure how you’ll finish. Facing the unknowable can be scary, no matter how many times you’ve done it (and this would be my 45th).

A note sent to the Napa runners the week before their race was meant to reassure them, but I needed this reminder too. It read:

Your training peaked at 21 miles. You might be asking yourself, if you haven’t already asked me, or haven’t found out for yourself in an earlier marathon: “How can I now take the big leap from 21 to 26 miles?”

I understand your concerns. I had them myself when facing my first marathon, off a longest training run a mile shorter than yours. That marathon would be faster than any that followed, when training often was longer. Based on experience since then – as a runner, writer, speaker and now a coach of marathoners – I offer these assurances that you’ll find those extra miles:

— You trusted me to help you get this far. Trust me not to have left you unprepared to finish.

— You get an extra week’s recovery (three in all) between the last long run and the race. Use it wisely, and don’t try to do any “cramming” for this final exam. Your assignment now is to taper down the training.

— You will go new places. Enjoy escaping the “home course,” which has become too familiar these past few months of training, and exploring the race course that will be new to all of you.

— You will get a major boost from the magic of race day – the crowd running with you and watching you run. Expect the increased adrenaline to give you another hour of strong running.

— You won’t succumb to adrenaline poisoning, will you? Keep your head during the early miles while almost everyone around you is losing theirs.

— You will start slower, or at least no faster (please), than on your longest training run. Look forward to passing people in the late miles, which is much more fun than being passed.

— You will have more help. Don’t worry about getting a drink or finding a bathroom. They’ll be available every few miles.

— You will see new faces. Appreciate how you’re part of something much bigger, 100 times bigger in this race, than your long training runs. You’ll never run alone.

— You will have trained as long or longer than most of the runners near you. Look around and think, I feel better than that person looks.

— You won’t face another long run in two weeks. Don’t hold anything back, since you can take as much time as you want to recover from this big effort. You’ll never forget all that went into it.

EARLY MARCH. Rains fell and headwinds blew during the Napa Valley Marathon. Some 500 runners either didn’t show up, didn’t finish or didn’t make the 5:30 cutoff time. Our team of Oregonians lined up all 16 of its entrants, and all finished with at least a half-hour to spare before official timing ceased.

The previous two Marathon Teams had trained the same way as this latest group. Of the 49 starters, all but one had finished. That one stepped off the course with two blocks to go so a time that disappointed him wouldn’t be recorded. He’d still gone five miles past his training peak.

APRIL FOOL’S DAY. We runners think in numbers, talk in numbers, define ourselves and each other by numbers. The numbers I put up at the Yakima River Canyon Marathon weren’t notable, yet they didn’t go unnoticed.

There’s nowhere to hide as a marathoner anymore. You could look up my time, anyone’s time, on some website, so I’ll save you the trouble. It was 5:01 at Yakima.

A friend asked at the finish line, “Does it embarrass you not to break five hours?” It wasn’t a harsh question. He knew I’d once run more than two hours faster, he knew that I’m a little more visible than most five-hour marathoners, and he was concerned about my feelings at that moment.

No, I told him, this time carries no shame. If slowing down bothered me, I would have stopped running marathons after the first few. Or I would have chosen one now where no one knew me, then run in disguise under an assumed name.

A time goal wasn’t what brought me to this marathon. The final time was the least of what I took away from it (though I confess relief at avoiding a PW – personal-worst time – by a single minute).

Running a race is not all about, or always about, a finish time. Other numbers meant far more to me at Yakima, and are why I chose this marathon on this date.

We runners like giving special meaning to otherwise random numbers. Three of mine marked times measured not in hours but in years. The first of those was the six years since my last marathon, Napa Valley 2000. The other numbers were 48 and 62.

Forty-eight years had rushed past since my first race, on another April Fool’s Day in 1958. This marathon had to go better than that first race – of just one mile – when I’d started too fast and not finished.

In my next April Fool’s race I’d been knocked down, bloodied and forever scarred in the opening rush. I didn’t view those as bad omens, but instead took comfort from sticking around long enough to wear the race number that Yakima reserved for me: 48.

A final number carried meaning only to me: my 62 years of age. Compared to the 50 States marathoners staging their quarterly reunion at Yakima, plus the 100 Marathon Club members and Marathon Maniacs who ran here, my lifetime marathon count is puny. It averages less than one per running year.

But I’d already run them in my 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. I joked during a brief talk at the pasta dinner, “After doing this first one in my 60s, I can re-retire until age 70.”

MORNING AFTER. Checking into my Yakima hotel, I’d been handed an oversized greeting card. It read, “Since we can’t be here in body, we’re here in spirit.” It was signed by runners from my Marathon Teams.

A column I’d posted on my website at a dark hour of marathon morning was addressed to coaches. It ended, “Teach by example. Ask your runners to do no training or racing that you wouldn’t do (and haven’t done, or are doing) yourself.”

I did that training and the race, and now was back in Eugene, watching and handing drinks to and cheering for the latest Marathon Team as it reached 15 miles in training. I understood these runners – and all marathoners – a little better, and respected them even more.

Now I was back with this Marathon Team in body as well as spirit. After walking stiffly to their starting line, I told them, “I can teach you to walk this way the day after your marathon.”

UPDATE: This marathon wasn’t the start of something frequent. I completed only one more in my 60s and didn’t reach the starting line for two others because of injuries in training. Turning 70 this week, I’m wondering when or if the decades-long streak that began in my 20s can continue.

[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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