Saturday, November 6, 2010

The fundamentals

Asking someone when they started running is kind of odd, when you think about it. For most people, the real answer is probably shortly after they mastered walking.

But that's not what most people mean when they ask that question. They want to know when you started to purchase lots of specialized equipment and clothing, to track miles and paces and use all kinds of dorky running lingo in polite company. People who started running as adults with disposable income and big brains want to know the magic formula--the fundamentals--that you learned from all the years that you must have spent working with professional coaches and reading training manuals and following the recipes. They want to know the secret that you must know because you're kind of fast relative to the average finisher at the local yokel 5k. They want to break it down, follow the steps and take the exam. Earn their CRD credential (Certified Running Dorkwad.)

I say read some books if you're into that sort of thing (personally, running books bore me to tears) and patrol the interwebs for the training logs of elites if you want--it's all good and interesting stuff. But if it's the secret you're after, find some real-life, flesh and blood people to run with and run with them a bunch. After about your 50th workout or long run (40th if you're a really quick study) with the same group of experienced runners, the secret begins to come into view.

I suppose I started running, in the way that people mean, when I was 14 years old and I went out for the winter track team as a freshman in high school, putting an end to my hockey career in part due to a December birthday. And so pretty much what I did every day after school all winter and all spring was go running with my buddies. We ran in good weather and bad. We ran in the heat in the cold, in the rain and in the snow and on beautiful, sunny afternoons that took your breath away. We did all the familiar loops with names that had been passed down from generation to generation. We made fun of each other and had snowball fights out on the roads. We did hills up by the water tower and we did drills on the back straightaway. We did loads of 400s at all sorts of paces. We did a hellish workout named "baseball" because it took place on the baseball field and involved lots of accelerations for unknown amounts of time at unknown intervals, in a pack. We tasted copper. We ran in cotton t-shirts and without watches, heart rate monitors, GPS, or iPods. We didn't keep training logs and hadn't even heard of the expression "miles per week." If it rained today, we ran in wet shoes tomorrow.

When the weather was really bad we did workouts in the field house on a flat, tiny track--mondo over concrete--that we were fortunate to have compared to lots of other high schools. We raced our asses off on eleven laps to the mile indoor tracks and at the end of the season, if we were lucky, we got to turn it loose on a nice, banked 200m oval. In the spring we got to move outside and run on the big track and then life was really grand. We knew all the runner girls.

The first time I set foot on a college campus, it was to run a race. The first time I left New England, it was to run a race. The first time I dated a girl from outside my town she was a runner for another high school whom I'd met at a track meet. The first time I drank a beer from a keg it was on a track recruit weekend at Holy Cross my senior year in high school.

And I was absolutely nothing special. A completely ordinary high school track runner.

I might have had a grand total of 5 one-on-one conversations with my coach over 4 years of track. Maybe.

When I started to get back in to running as an adult, it never occurred to me to worry about a lot of the stuff people obsess over. I started running, I found some races, I talked to some runners. Eventually I found some people to do workouts with sometimes. And then I just stuck with it.

The nice thing about running--the thing that brought me back as an adult with a family and a real job--is that the lion's share of the work can be done alone, on nobody else's schedule. The motivated enough hobby jogger can simply make it a habit to get up early every morning and get his workout in before most of his neighbors are awake. Or if he's a night owl he can do it after the kids are in bed. He can get pretty fit, and even be relatively competitive locally, on an average of an hour a day of training--most of it outside the hours when he's beholden to others. But this can become isolating if you let it.

What it takes is running a lot, sure, but also yucking it up with your buddies over a long run. Talking running while running. And talking non-running while running. Commuting to races together, racing hard, and sharing a few beers and a few laughs afterward. Because it feels good to be fit and alive. Because you just ran a race. Because you're runners. And runners run.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for putting this up, Mike. I'm going to link it from my blog because I think you nailed a few things.

    There are a bunch of threads kinda doing postmortem on the NYC marathon and as usual comparing it back to the heyday of the early 80s. People are asking the old timers what their secret was, and you can tell that they are all at a loss to explain it. All they do is tell these stories about their friends, about hitchhiking to races, about running a lot. They say things like "I don't know, it was just something in the air--we wanted to run, and run hard, and run fast, that was it." Or, "we didn't think it was about knowledge; racing fast was about the spirit."

    Well, I'm no 2:20 marathon guy from the 80s, but I know one thing: *training* is less important than *running*. And you can train all you want, but without the fire, without being willing to burn hot, well what's the point?