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.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're spot on, though the genetics coin has two sides. Genetic differences can provide a slight edge, but they can also put up extra barriers. For example, if someone is genetically prone to a more intense inflammatory response to injury, they should probably think twice about pounding the pavement for hours on end.

    Still, it seems our culture in general looks for easy solutions with a mindeset that science will figure out some magic combination of intensity and rest. Slogging it out through blood, sweat and tears doesn't sell as many magazines...