Local (well, Wisconsin) running legend Tom Bunk has passed away after a battle with cancer. He was a good man and I respected him - and those are the highest compliments that I ever give. His presence is already missed.
I've complained a lot about missing "the good old days" of running on this blog. Finally, the pieces have fallen together and I think I have a solution. This is going to require a rather long description of the problem [sorry], because the solution looks simplistic without it.
When I started running in the 1970's, information was passed from runner to runner in the form of lore. Wanting to run a marathon, I was told "run 60-70 miles per week, run a 20 miler every other week and train a minute per mile slower than you expect to race." That information still holds true for those planning to break 3 hours, which was the common goal of the time, but has become meaningless in the age of the 6 hour marathoner. There are still some remnants of lore - I've heard it said that one can finish the Superior 100 Mile if one can run up Buck Hill thirty times; if you aren't familiar with that race or that hill, that's the nature of lore. Similarly, fartlek training and Lydiard training are no different, just differing terminology being used by different small groups.
With the running boom, there were enough runners to make it profitable to publish training manuals (I own a dozen), all of which tried to codify training based upon one coach's mindset. By trying to make a beginner's training be a watered-down version of an elite athlete's, information got diluted and individuality was lost. People would try one method, fail, then try another.
With ever larger numbers of runners, magazines for runners made money by publishing exotic and improbable training methods, always searching for the latest thing, creating chaos and contradiction. The over-riding trend was not "how to train to run faster given where you are now" but rather "How to finish a race on the absolute least possible training." There had been a sea change; instead of races being competitive sporting events, they were participatory social events. This in itself was not a problem, except that the few competitive runners could no longer find each other, lost in a sea of humanity at a mega-race or being alone in one of dozens of races in a given weekend.
I switched to trail races and ultramarathons because there was still a small sense of community, but these have exploded in popularity and, with lower capacity, faced the same problems in a very short time. I started this blog as a way to get information out about the UMTR before they had a website and decided to use it to publish my own training manual as I learned how to run ultras. There were two times when someone commented "That's brilliant!" but the most telling comment was toward the end, when a friend asked "What am I supposed to do with all this information? Just tell me what to do!"
That brings me to the second issue, the problem of authority and control.
I've always been a teaching coach, which has never been popular and is now nearly extinct. People, lost and looking for direction, want someone to tell them what to do (the dictator personal trainer who tells you the "workout of the day" for example), but they want to control and shape their own path as well. This has led to the proliferation of training plans, either copied from the internet or a book ((it's interesting ho many people bought Hudson's book, where he spend hundreds of pages explaining how to personalize a schedule, and then blindly following one of the examples in the back). When problems arise and the poorly-understood plan can no longer be followed, they follow as best they can for a while, and later do whatever token effort they can and hope for the best, deciding to follow a different plan next time.
People also commonly get coaches as motivators and cheerleaders (and both are appropriate at times), paying someone to make them accountable ("I better get in that workout or coach will be disappointed") or to acknowledge every accomplishment and celebrate every achievement, even if it has no bearing on the goal of future success or even jeopardizes it.
My goal as a coach has always been to teach a runner until they no longer need me as a coach, but the prevailing attitude among runners is "I don't care why something works, as long as it works." The problem with this is that it leads to a non-stop search for quick fixes. Add to this the pick-and-choose method of selecting pieces from different sources - always choosing what one likes, rather than what one needs - and failure is inevitable.
What one wants, ideally, is access to the collective wisdom, made pertinent. This requires a team.
The concept of a running team has taken two diametrically opposed positions, neither of which has worked for me and for which I propose an alternative.
First, there is the social training club, which generally run together once per week and usually has a meal or drinks afterward. I was part of one in 1986 (it still exists, with some original members, and they say I'm welcome back) that was made up of some of the best runners in the area. They would run 10 miles and I would always find myself running with the leaders, which meant that i was doing a weekly 10 mile race in 55-60 minutes, while the majority, which included the likes of a 2:16 marathoner, were having a leisurely 10 mile run in 65. While conversations rarely strayed far from running (no one knew what the others did for a living), very little information transferred except for who was planning to do what race and occasional race recaps.
The other type of team is organized around a business which supplies teammates with gear as long as they are seen placing well in races. These often do not see each other except at designated "team races." Other than being able to spot teammates in their uniforms at races, the benefits of these are mercenary.
A team should be, by definition, mutually supportive and cooperative. Finding people who want to run the same distance at the same pace at the same time and place is nearly impossible. It's also not necessary that members of a team have similar goals. What's required is a willingness to offer another assistance with the expectation that one will also get the help one needs. Websites are popping up continuously for runners asking advice, but these too have been stymied by the problem of scale: the first for ultrarunners a decade ago had someone asking how many miles they should run per week in training for a 100 mile race; the moderator said that as an elite athlete, he did 140 per week, but thought that was excessive for most; another said that one cannot expect to run 100 miles in a day if he cannot run 100 miles per week; then others said they run 60-70, others said they did 30-50 and one said he got by with 15-20; becuase of information dilution and lack of specificity, they only caused confusion.
A committed group of 6-7 is ideal for getting to know others and being able to support each other. They should be chosen for their desire to run faster, for their ability to think critically and accept criticism, to not try to win arguments but be helpful and lastly, for their faith that this is going to help them succeed.
I want to start a team (or two) and act as the team's coach. I'd help set goals, figure out training schedules based on whatever information I can get and make adjustments as needed, provide support and answer questions. Some things require being in the same place - showing how to deal with minor injuries, proper hill running technique, etc. - so only people close enough that they could run together if they chose would make a team. Because people don't seem to value things they can't put a price on, I'd charge 1/2 the entry fee of whatever their goal races are (this is nicely self-regulating, as shorter races can be done more often and require less preparation time). The team function would work as a governor - when a question or problem arises, I'd address my answer/solution to the group and consider their input (I can sometimes miss the point); this way, everyone has a stake in the success of the others.
Lastly, to prove that I wouldn't have anyone do anything I wouldn't, I'd also teach by example. Which brings me to my own goal: I plan to win the grandmaster's (over-50) class at the Afton 50K next July 4th; it'll take cutting an hour off my personal best time on that course (that's two minutes per mile!), starting from not being able to run at all for most of this year. Want to know how I'll do it? Join the team.
I looked at the Afton Trail 50K record for 50 year-old men and decided it was soft. Using age-grading and switching 25K to 50K in one case (and changing gender in one), I came up with four predictions of what the record should be - 4:05, 4:05, 4:08, 4:08. The record currently stands at 4:27:27. The next question was: Just how hard would that be? The current record is about like running a marathon under 3:10 and 4:05 would be about a marathon in 2:50. I might be able to match the current record, but that would be about my limit.
De-romanticizing the past
But is that in any way realistic? I dug out my old records and in 2007, I was running 85 miles per week at 8 minutes per mile; I could run sub 4:30 at Afton then. The next year, I was doing just a little worse (and racing a lot) and could reasonably expect to do it... but ran 5:29. Two minutes per mile slower! It was a bad race, with a nasty fall, but even before that, the pace was wrong. I was not racing well after the win at Trail Mix in April. Something was up.
The idea of running as fast next year as I did then is barely in the realm of possibility.
How did I used to do it, anyway?
In the early 2000's, I had times when I didn't run much mileage, but I was still running 6.5 to 7.5 minutes per mile in training. When I increased mileage, it was dramatic and not systematic.I remember some slow years, when running 10 minutes per mile for a few miles was a challenge (about where I started this summer), but my records from then are spotty.
I'm starting to run again. I'm stuck at a slow pace and low mileage and trying to remember how to make a comeback. There've been times when I could whip myself into shape in 6 weeks, but I can't do that any more. There've been attempts at a comeback before that have failed and I think I know the reason: what made me race well was the ability to endure much more suffering than others - but there are no awards for suffering. I'm good at going from 98% to 99%, but getting from 48% to 49% bothers me and I've tried to leapfrog over some steps in the past.
Recently, my "long" run was 7 miles and, as I headed out to run 8, I ran into an old friend who pointed out that I was running a 3 mile loop, so I might as well make it a 9 miler. It's what I would've done before - and I would've paid the price of not being able to run well (if at all) for a couple of days afterward.
Treating myself like someone else
The biggest challenge of being self-coached is second-guessing oneself. What I need to do is make myself run like I would if I were someone else. Pull out the old rules:
1) Don't increase mileage more than 10% (and 5% is safer).
2) Don't make your long run too long (25% of previous week's mileage is the goal).
3) Take a day off each week, until running at least 60 miles per week.
4) Do just a little speedwork - nothing longer than 100 meters at a time, to break the monotony.
5) Don't push in any workout, but, if you feel good, run as fast as you feel like going.
6) Try to improve just a little, either in average pace or in total miles, every week.
7) When you can't manage #6, back off for a week or two.
It's maddeningly slow making a comeback this way, but it's working so far.
I've been thinking about the Afton Trail Race a lot lately. This year's winner, Mike Borst, ran an extremely fast first half and died in the second, still just three minutes off the course record (he claims a pit stop cost him the record, but the uneven pacing is more likely to be the cause). Not many people run anything close to even pace in that race, though it's generally accepted that even pacing is the most efficient way to race. The course starts before the heat of the day and heats up rapidly, so it's easy to run fast for the first hour or two - but is it better to run fast when you can do it easily and then slow, or to run evenly? I've gone back and forth on this, but cumulative heat stress effects tell me that even pacing is still best.
Not that I'm exactly an expert at even pacing... my official best mile had an insanely fast first 400 and a wicked kick, with a plodding 800 in the middle. My second-best marathon had a first half in 1:14:29, with a finish of 2:43:24.
There was a study that showed that 5K's might be best run with positive splits, but they're an unusual case (and not coincidentally my best distance). Top runners can run anaerobically, with increasing lactate levels, for about as long as they can hold their breath - about 3 minutes (not many average runners can do much more than a minute). 3 minutes is a sizable portion of a 13 minute 5K and slowing that last 3 minutes is reasonable. For a 1500m runner, 3 minutes is almost the whole race, so it doesn't alter first and second halves. At 10K, the effect is lessened and the problem of heat dissipation enters, so 10K runners vary from positive to even to negative splits, depending on the runner's strengths and the day. 100m sprinters spend the first part of the race getting to speed, so they almost always run negative splits. Everyone else: even splits.
I may just have to see if I can get in shape so I can try running even pace there next year. 50 weeks to go...
I know what I want to do and I know what I have to do to do it. [And I know how to write a confusing sentence.] Getting there is the tough part.
I love the little details of planning for a race far in the future, but each time I think I'm ready to start actually running - because the only workout that matters is the one you actually do - I find that there's yet another stage of preparation I'd overlooked.
Right now, the days that will be the easy days are the hard ones. I'm trying to build my mileage (from zero), but I know that just running slowly will become a problem eventually, so I have to add days of short fast stuff. "Sometimes you have to run one hard and fast," some clever guy once wrote. One day per week of 40-50m sprints will help keep me from ossifying. One day of form-work strides will help make those sprints improve over time.
What I want to do for a long run is just way too long at present and I have to be patient, so my training right now looks like it's good for a 10K (and I have a 10K race scheduled in October!):
Monday 45 minutes with 4-6x100m strides @ 1500m pace
Tuesday 90 minutes
Wednesday 45 minutes with 4-6 all-out sprints of 40-50m
Thursday 90 minutes
Saturday 90 minutes
Sunday 120 minutes
That's a lot of unusually long runs for a 10K schedule, but I really need to work on my endurance. When that becomes easy to do, it's on to the next stage, which I of course, have all planned out. I just have to remember that this is preparation for a longer race next year and not turn it into a hard schedule for a 10K which I'll race so hard I'll spend the winter recovering.
Steve says hi. Like in the last line of a letter (remember when people wrote letters?) between two people who both know him. Like that. Hi.
Oh, and I write about running. 35 years and nearly 600 races thus far.