Friday, March 22, 2013

Stories from the road

Today I was thumbing through the anthology 'Runners on Running', when I came across this great essay written by Roger Hart titled simply 'Runners'. You can read the essay for yourself HERE. If you don't want to take the time to read it, Mr. Hart is basically recounting some of the great experiences he has had while running with his buddies. It occurred to me while reading his essay that I've been running for a few years now and I've got quite the store house of memories from running. Having spent much of my running career in west-central Minnesota, where the weather is primarily affected by low and high pressure systems from three regions of the continent, many of my best (and worst) experiences have been weather related. There were a number of times when Scott and I, rather than fight the ever-present gale force winds, decided to let it work for us and asked one of our significant others to come pick us up on the side of the highway miles from town. Many's the mild spring and fall night when two or three of us would become possessed by the sudden and urgent desire to get the guys together for a late-night run, singing Christmas carols or show-tunes through the quiet Morris streets. One of Scott's favorite memories to bring up is the time I got blamed by the team for a rapid influx of bad weather because, in my haste to get to practice on time I opted to throw my recyclables away in the trash and then taunted mother nature to 'do something about it'. Well she did I can tell you that, we all got a spanking that day. There is, however, one memory that sticks out vividly among the rest. Here is the tale.

It was another gloomy, overcast fall day in Morris. The cross-country season was nearing it's end and the prospect of another long, harsh Minnesota winter weighed heavily on my mind. Most days I looked forward to practice, but after seeing the chilly rain come down all day my energy felt prematurely low and I dreaded having to leave my warm dry bedroom and get soaked to the bone outside. As a captain however, I felt it was my duty to embrace discomfort and lead the team faithfully through our workout, which on this day was mercifully, an easy run of 40 minutes. Scott and I layered up and jogged over to the P.E. center at about 3:45 as was our custom and at first neither of us were very talkative. However the jog seemed to energize us both and by the time we got there we were both curiously amped up. As the rest of the men's team filtered in it appeared our strange enthusiasm was contagious and our bunch of scrawny distance runners could hardly wait for Jeremy to finish chatting with us so we could go outside and uncork this weird desire to run and be merry. Well the rain had been coming down steadily since the previous night and there were very large puddles everywhere. The broad highway ditches, being repositories for street and lawn run-off, were like swimming pools. The temperature was hovering near 45 degrees, and though initially chilly on our scantily clad bodies, once we started running it was plenty warm. We all ran as if possessed and I remember one of our shorter runners sprinting into a waist-deep ditch and actually beginning to front-stroke his way to the other side. We sprinted toward every puddle we could find and in short order their wasn't a single one of us who wasn't thoroughly soaked from head to toe. Some of us were belting out show-tunes as we caromed through town. I can only imagine what went through the heads of the stoic, conservative Morris natives when our rowdy bunch blew past their houses and cars. While we were all partaking in our glorious puddle romp, a very fast moving cold-front was overtaking Morris and as we neared the first mile the first ominous snow flakes touched our cheeks. The advent of snow seemed only to intensify our crazed state however and soon we were racing pell-mell away from campus and out into the country side, the group now beginning to string out as the slower runners struggled to keep up. As we neared our halfway point (being 2-3 miles away from campus) a fierce north wind began to blow (which was perfectly in our faces) and the temperature began an alarmingly rapid descent. It was at this point when the more aware among us began to realize that we were in a bit of a pickle. We were already slightly chilled and absolutely soaked to the bone, the temperature was dropping dramatically, the wind  was now howling out of the north at 20+mph, none of us had more than a cotton t-shirt and a pair of our famously short-shorts on, and we were nearly 3 miles away from campus. A nervousness began to edge into our laughter. No more leaping into puddles, lot's of 'oh shit, it's getting cold out here'. As our fingers began to numb, and the shirts began to freeze on our cold chests, our mental fortress of immortality started to crumble. Campus and warm showers seemed to be a very long way away indeed. I've never been one to handle physical emergencies well, so as my core-temperature began to drop, I instinctively picked up my pace to get back to campus faster. Somewhere in my chilled brain however, it eventually dawned on me that some of the guys had been dropping back quite a while ago and there was a good chance that our fanatic initial pace had set them up for a very difficult last couple of miles. I forced myself to slow down and look backwards for them. By this time so much snow was falling and being whipped through the air that visibility was reduced to a half mile or less and I could no longer make out the shapes of more than one or two of the guys behind me. Snow was literally piling up on the north side of my face and body, and running was beginning to feel very awkward as my body stiffened. At last we crossed the highway and were on the campus grounds, just a half mile to go until warmth! I don't remember running next to anyone that last few minutes but I know my friend Dugan was just in front of me and reached the door first. He was so cold he immediately ran inside and the door closed behind him. I tried to grip the handle but my fingers were too cold to hold onto it. I panicked momentarily, the thought passed through my head of making it back to campus only to freeze just outside the door. Necessity being the mother of invention, I realized that by putting my whole hand through the handle I could use my wrist to open the door. I did that and was inside, success! Three other guys had made it back before me and we stood in the entrance exchanging knowing looks, we tried speaking but our tongues seemed as frozen as our fingers. Gradually more guys made it back, several going straight to their beds in the dormitories to warm up. The rest of us went to the locker room showers, turned on every faucet as hot as it would go and sat beneath them still in our clothes, no one said a word but I made sure to double check that everyone had made it back ok. We must have sat their 15-20 minutes, every one of us shaking uncontrollably as our bodies struggled to regain warmth. Eventually some other team came in to shower and we picked ourselves up off the floor, toweled off and got dressed. Someone, I don't remember who, said 'I'm sure we'll all remember that one for a long, long time'. Indeed every time I get together with my mates from cross country that run always comes up, with a big grin and a laugh, the time when we all nearly froze to death on an easy day. We may have nearly died and nothing could hurt quite as bad as ALL of your appendages thawing out at once, but in the words of Roger Hart "we learned we were alive, and it felt good. God, it felt so good". Here's to the memories on the run, and to many more...                                          

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

As a runner I like to think that I work myself pretty hard out there on the roads, and occasionally on the track. As a result of this I tend to get frustrated when my times don't drop significantly year-to-year, or when goals that I've had since high school still haven't been met. Sometimes my frustration leads me to ponder the ever-relevant question of how the best runners are so good at running? I've been running nigh on 15 years, relatively consistently, and I've never even approached the level that one would call competitive. In high school I was OK, in college I was at the back of the pack. Now as a 27 year-old I can hold my own in most of the local races, but put me in something competitive, say, the Human Race 8k in St. Paul, and I'll be back in 75th place. Not exactly bringing home the laurel wreath. The big question that plagues me is this: can a anyone, given sufficient focus, drive, time and energy transform themselves into a runner of near-elite stature, or does it all just boil down to the genetic lottery in the end and those of us not blessed with the proper genetic structure are doomed to the confines of mediocrity? I've gone back and forth on how important I think genetics are to a runners potential. It seems every time I'm about to conclude that it is really just what a person is born with, history provides me with an outlier, a person who seems to have succeeded in becoming an elite status runner despite humble origins. Here now is my current opinion on what makes great runners great, what can the rest of us can hope to achieve, and what factors are the most important to possess in order to achieve some level of 'greatness' in the sport. 

Buddy Edelen was a college runner, not great by any means, but decent. He was what they call, a steady performer, meaning he rarely won anything, never set any records, but he could be relied upon to run certain decent times and occasionally score a point or three at a conference meet. Buddy loved to run, but in the 1950's there weren't really many options in America for post-collegiate running. So Buddy did what not many die-hard runners would have the guts to do, move to Europe. Europe was home to the best track and field athletes, the most up-to-date coaching theories, and what's more, a culture that viewed running as a sport and valued it highly. Buddy went to some races in Europe and asked a lot of questions, he was seeking the answer to the question of how distance runners from Finland, Britain and Germany were so good. He was looking for some training secret that would unlock the potential he believed was within himself. He felt he had what it took to be a great runner, he just needed the training tools. Well Buddy found what he was looking for, the secret to becoming a good runner. It was pretty much what he thought (and maybe feared) it would be: run as many miles as you can possibly handle, most of them as fast as you can, and when you're so tired you're bumping into walls and can't think straight, run some more. Buddy began building his weekly mileage, which had never topped 50-60 per week in college, to 100, 110, 120, 130 per week and more. He was running twice a day and doing really fast interval-style workouts several times a week. In less than five years Buddy Edelen transformed himself into a great runner, one of the greatest in the world. He set numerous American records across an array of distances, and ultimately became the world record holder in the marathon. His training regimen was nothing new to the Europeans but it was astonishing and unthinkable to Americans. As Buddy became a higher profile athlete, and as more Americans stepped up their mileage, the American distance running community slowly, and then with increasing rapidity began to churn out elite level distance runners. Much credit must go to Frank Shorter and his Olympic gold in Munich in 1972, for the next two decades American runners caught on to his singular focus and high-mileage program. As a result distance running flourished in the U.S. in the late 70's and 80's and into the 90's. Dick Beardsley, Steve Scott, Alberto Salazar, Benji Durden, Tony Sandoval, Gary Bjorklund, Mary Decker-Slaney, Bill Rodgers, these are but a few of the many who ushered in, and took part in, the golden age of American distance running. What program did they subscribe to in order to achieve their success? High-mileage my friends. Every single person on that list, and the myriad more who nearly made it to the top were running thousands of miles per year. 80, 90, 100+ mile weeks were nothing out of the ordinary for these runners. Many college programs took freshmen and put them on a 100 mile/week diet. And those weren't 100 LSD miles, those were 100 miles on the track, up and down mountains, and through fields. Those that could hang on became the best runners in the country. The runners that rose above and beyond the masses of other people undertaking such grueling training, I would argue, are the genetically gifted few. These are the ones with recuperative abilities that enabled them to withstand the workload necessary (and years of it at a time) to shine bright for a handful of years. The tantalizing thing is that outside of this very select group was an enormous number of runners who trained the same, and got very nearly as good, but just couldn't hang on to the years of high mileage running necessary to become a world champion. My answer to the genetics vs. hard-work question then is that the very small percentage of good distance runners who become good enough to set records and make a living at running are the genetically gifted few, they work hard and just improve more than the rest of us. Their bodies heal faster and enable them to train for longer periods of time. For the rest of us however, there is great hope and possibility if we can get back to the training methods of yesteryear. Our genetic make-up is good enough to get us a lot closer to stardom than we think. Let's all read a little Arthur Lydiard and stop getting frustrated when our 40 mile weeks aren't getting us closer to our goals. Lydiard used to make all of his athletes, whether they were training for an 800 meter race or a marathon, run over 100 miles per week. For pete's sake, high school students used to run 80-100 miles per week, now Runner's world tells us that less is more, and we buy into it because we don't want to know the truth about our training or think of ourselves as uncommitted. I looked back into my high-school log book recently and realized, to my embarrassment, that 25 miles was a big week for me back then. If only I knew then what I know now. If you want proof of the value of high-mileage running, look up a man by the name of Phil Coppess. His story will amaze you. And yet, as runners, it shouldn't. The 1970's and 80's were filled with stories like his, people who just friggin loved to run and they ran their asses off. So I say to those who want to take running seriously, not the philosophers, but the competitive sharks out there who really enjoy making others eat your dust: if you want to maximize your potential you'd better start upping that mileage cupcake, it'll pay off down the road I promise.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A year in running: 2012

The year of 2012 has past and gone, leaving an indelible mark on my life as it went. As a runner, this past year was perhaps the most important of my life. In many ways I was forced to decide how important a role I would give running in my life. Personally I was approached by my brother who asked me to be his coach for his first attempt at the marathon. At that point I needed to decide if I thought I knew enough and had the necessary experience to coach someone, especially someone as close as my brother. On a different personal  note at the start of the year I was deciding whether or not to continue my pursuit of a sub-3hour marathon. I knew given enough time spent training it should be well within my capabilities, but did I want to spend that amount of time training? How fully could I commit myself to this one challenge? In my professional life, I was offered a position as a full-time assistant coach at a University. Accepting that position has forced me to see running not only as one hobby in my life, but part of my life's work itself. As an assistant coach I now find myself taking a much more academic approach to running, which has it's benefits and detractors as any job does.

By the numbers 2012 was a very good year for me. I ran in twelve races, everything from the 3k to the marathon. I had three all-time best performances, the first of which was a distance I've never run before, so it was a PR by default, but since it was a race attempt by me I'll count it. Of all the races I ran this year, only two stand out as being horrible and those were the Human race 8k in March and the Red White and Boom 5 mile in July. Both were run on extremely unseasonably hot days but I also recall feeling mentally out of it on both occasions. Here are my race results from the past year:

1/8/2012 – Challenge series indoor 5k – 17:44
3/18/2012 – Human Race 8k – 30:26
4/21/2012 – Morris Open 5k – 17:12
5/27/2012 – Med-City Marathon – 3:04:17
6/7/2012 – Pea Soup Days 5k – 17:16
7/4/2012 – Red White and Boom 5 mile – 32:05
8/11/2012 – Gopher to Badger ½ Marathon – 1:24:43
9/8/12 – Get Ready to Rock 20 mile – 2:17:28* (new distance)
9/22/12 – Homecoming 5k – 18:12
10/07/12 – Bank of America Chicago Marathon – 2:57:46* (3:01:11)
11/25/12 – Dash and Dine 5mile – 29:00* (29:28)
12/16/12 – Charities Challenge Indoor Series 3k – 10:02
*denotes Personal Record, ( ) indicates previous record

According to the website, where I faithfully enter my workouts, I ran 2,501 miles in 2012, and spent 294 hours and 28 minutes doing so. According to that my average pace during 2012 was 7:03/mile, which I think seems a little low. While I am pleased with my running numbers for the past year, I think what I am most proud of, and what I learned the most from was strictly adhering to my training plan for the Med City Marathon. For that I followed the Hanson's marathon training which I modified slightly. I started this training in January and followed it through until the end of May. For that time period I did not miss one workout, or significantly decrease my mileage for injury or fatigue. The training resulted in (at the time) my second best marathon performance on a day with 70-80% humidity and temperatures in the mid-80's. I was initially disappointed in my result, but I now consider it to be one of my finest races. I did all the little things perfectly and paced as well as I could. Eventually the heat did get the best of me, but not until the very end which enabled me to finish 7th place overall on a day when everyone was advised to 'throw their thoughts of fast times and good finishes out the window'. I believe I was still benefiting from the residual strength from my spring training when I surprised myself with a good time in the Get Ready to Rock 20 mile race, and a major PR and goal achievement during the Chicago Marathon. The big lesson I took away from training through the spring is that it is definitely beneficial to follow a set program, and that doing so can set you up for an entire year of great racing. If the progression of the training is gradual and consistent, it is possible to reach heights of training you previously thought impossible. This knowledge excites me for the future because I know now that 'big mileage' won't necessarily break me down if I do it right, and that the strength benefits from that will be far-reaching and long-lasting. As always it is still intimidating to think of running 80-100 miles per week, but when I look at the ground I've covered since high school, when four miles was a fairly long run, and 25 miles was a good week, it seems more achievable. 

My summary of 2012 would not be complete without paying tribute to the accomplishments of my wife and my brother. 2012 began inauspiciously for my brother +Adam Krueger who struggled with an injury while training for his first half marathon. As I mentioned earlier he decided to run his first marathon at the Chicago Marathon and asked me if I would assist him in setting up a training plan and help him along the way. I viewed it as a good opportunity to synthesize some of the knowledge I had gained in training for and running my three marathons, and we both viewed it as a good way to keep in better touch with one another. In all aspects his training was a great success. He was able to follow the plan I set up to a 'T' and successfully ran the Chicago Marathon. I was extremely impressed by the fact that he trained largely solo and was able to motivate himself through some tough workouts and through an incredibly hot, humid summer. My wife, who has always been a source of inspiration to me, also had her highest year of mileage ever and ran several of the best races of her life. Most notably was her race at the Chicago Marathon where she improved her best time of 4hours and 2 minutes by a whopping 35 minutes, lowering her lifetime best to 3:37! I am incredibly proud of my wife and my brother, they inspire me to not sit back and bask in the glow of my accomplishments but constantly be out striving to set the bar higher and higher.

For 2013 my goals are as yet, largely undefined except for one. I know that I will race, though I will probably focus much more on the shorter distances such as 3k-10k. My longest surviving running goal has yet to be achieved and I think this is just the year to set my sights on it. Dating back to before college, my 5k goal has always been to run under 17 minutes. I've come as close as 3 seconds, but always either the weather or the course seemed to conspire against me. This year my goal is not only to make a sub-17 5k a reality, but get far enough under 17  so that even in adverse weather or a challenging course I am able to break the 17 minute barrier. With the strength and aerobic endurance from my marathon training I am positive that speed development will enable me to hit this goal in the spring. 

Goodluck and Godspeed to all of you fellow runners in 2013!