Preview: Slow Joe (by Rich Englehart)

(from Rich Englehart’s Introduction) It is 1970. I’m a college freshman running for a very mediocre cross-country team. As a high school runner, I was even less than mediocre. But for some odd reason, I really liked running and decided that I wanted to keep doing it in college. I managed to find a school that wasn’t too far from home, that wasn’t too expensive and that was, well, bad enough that it was happy to welcome anyone who wanted to run.

My training is similar to what I did in high school, virtually all of it repeat work done on the track, but now is much more intense. I frequently lose my lunch beneath the bleachers and often cannot finish the entire session. I’m last man on the team and know that if this state of affairs persists, I’m likely to fall farther behind the rest of the team. I start to look for some better way to train.

I began getting Track & Field News a few months earlier, and in one issue I see an advertisement for a book called Long Slow Distance: The Humane Way to Train. The ad claims that “training doesn’t have to be a pain.” I would like to buy the book, but it’s beyond my price range. Then in a later edition of T&FN I see another ad, this time for a magazine called Distance Running News. Back issues are advertised. One of these has an article titled “The Human Way to Train” (with the word “Humane” misspelled), written by the same author as the book with that as its subtitle. The back issue is cheaper than the book. I order it.

The article tells of three runners who train at seven to eight minutes per mile and race much, much faster. I haven’t heard of any of them, and their times are not world class. (Amby Burfoot, who was well known and had won the 1968 Boston Marathon while training slowly, was profiled in the book but not in the magazine article.) But they’re very fast. I would be thrilled to run nearly as well as any of them.

This sort of training is a radical departure from what is normal for the times. I’ve been taught that training needs to be hard to be effective, and I’m skeptical that having an easy, comfortable run on most or all days can get me fit enough to race at a five- or six-minute pace. But I’ve been looking for something else, something different, something that the other guys on my team aren’t doing, and I think, “Heck, if I train slowly, how much slower can I race than I do now?” As a Christmas present, my parents buy me the LSD book.

Throughout the winter I do a six- to 15-mile run each day. It’s not easy, but it’s much easier than interval work. It’s more satisfying as well to cover distances regularly that once seemed so imposing.

When track season starts, I find that I’m not the slowest distance runner on the team any more. I’m now second slowest, but am beating someone I could not beat the previous autumn. My best mile time is still slow, but it is more than a half-minute faster than I ran in high school. I continue to train this way over the summer. Come fall, I improve my time for our home cross-country course by more than three minutes and crack the seven-man varsity lineup. I get to run in the big late-season meets.

By graduation I have taken an additional 5½ minutes off my best time for the home cross-country course. My time is more than a minute faster than the school record for the course had been when I arrived, though others have run even faster since then. After graduation I continue to run and to race. Eventually I run a marathon at a faster per-mile pace than I ran for a single mile in high school.

Almost 40 years later, I am still running semi-seriously. My older son has taken up the sport and is doing quite well, in part because I’m able to guide his training. I think that maybe some of my love and enthusiasm for the sport has rubbed off on him. I reflect on the people who have influenced me and made the sport into such a tremendous experience. I know there are several but perhaps none to whom I are more indebted than “Mr. LSD,” Joe Henderson.

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