Solving the Riddle of Training

Hail the runner who knows how to train. Who never doubts, never questions, never wonders.

I’ve known runners like that. They appeared to know exactly what their bodies could handle. They were seldom overtrained. They didn’t waste time poring over books and articles on training. They just ran.

Carl Ellsworth was that kind of runner. On a quiet evening 13 years ago, Carl wandered into the market where I was working. When he saw my Jedediah Smith Ultra race t-shirt, he invited me to join a group of runners who met for speedwork once a week at the high school track.

I’d done long, slow distance for several years, and I was ready for a change. Speedwork sounded good.

I showed up at the track on Wednesday evening, eager to hear what Carl had to say. Trouble was, he said almost nothing. Just, “Let’s do three miles.”

That was it. No explanation, no whys or wherefores. Just 3 times 1 mile.

Each week, it was the same. In his quiet voice, Carl would announce the day’s workout, always in a single sentence – and off we’d go. We did our speedwork to the same, uncomplicated formula: 3 miles in combinations of quarters, halves, and miles, as hard as we could run. No heart monitors or elaborate calculations based on “race pace.” We simply blasted off and went as fast as we could for the prescribed distance.

Come to think of it, Carl did explain his philosophy of training one evening, and typically, he did it in a single sentence: “If you run hard in practice, it feels easy when you race.”

Carl was 64 at the time. He had a gentlemanly demeanor and a wonderful “look,” with snowy-white, shoulder-length hair and a gnarly, weather-worn face. He’d been a professor of political science at a Japanese university – now retired, his occupation, as far as I could tell, was full-time runner. He spent summers in the foothills of the Sierra and winters in Hawaii. His Japanese-born wife, Suru, spoke no English.

In Japan, there’s an expression, wabi-sabi. It’s a cultural and artistic movement based on appreciation for all things gnarly, old, earthy, countrified, impermanent, and shaped by nature. Carl was very wabi-sabi. Here’s the Wikipedia’s definition:

Wabisabi represents a comprehensive Japanese world view or aesthetic centered on the acceptance of transience… Characteristics of the wabi-sabi aesthetic include asymmetry, asperity, simplicity, modesty, intimacy, and suggest a natural process.

That was Carl. He was simply himself.

When Carl’s house burned down, several carpenter friends of mine helped him rebuild. They would often tease Carl: “How come you’re so nice, Carl? You’re the nicest man we know!” And it was true.

Carl Ellsworth on left, several fast runners, and Turtle George at far right.
Carl Ellsworth on left, with the fast runners of the over-40 speedwork group at Nevada Union High School (1995). Kneeling is Superior Court Judge John Darlington, member of a 4 x 1 mile team that set an age group world record. John ran 4:05 in college, despite asthma. At far right is the famous Swedish Olympian, Arnie Oldandslow.

Carl and I met up with another runner in Sacramento for a final 20-mile run before the California International Marathon. Nearly every runner we passed greeted Carl with a smile. He was nice. He was likable because he was simple, modest, quiet, dignified, and natural. People felt comfortable with him. Behind the gnarly exterior, there was a good heart.

Carl simply knew how to train; or rather, he had no doubts about his training. My analytical mind found much to question about Carl’s methods. For example, he never drank fluids during a marathon. Say what!? His explanation, characteristically simple, was: “Well, I’m only out there for three hours.” But he had frequent gastric problems, and I suspect that dehydration played a role.

Nevertheless, his style of training brought results. At 64, he ran a 3:05 marathon. He’d run sub-3:00 many times, including the previous year. Three years straight, he won the northern California USATF road race series in the 60-65 age group.

His simple training worked for me. In my first session with the group, I struggled to run 3 x 1 mile with a best time around 7:35. After seven months of weekly “3 miles hard” I ran a 10-mile race in 70 minutes, at age 53.

Where did Carl’s confidence come from? People who are filled with doubts are often defensive, loud and blustery. But Carl was quietly assured. My guess is that he honed his confidence in the years when he ran 100-mile weeks and raced frequently. He appeared to have learned about running by running.

My own career was different. If I were to guess, I’d say that a higher power placed me in Carl’s group so that I could learn the value of learning by doing, and stop thinking too much.

Since early in my career, I had been beset by doubts. I was fine for the first three years. A spiritual advisor had told me, “The thought occurs that you might not be getting enough exercise.” I bought Kenneth Cooper’s Aerobics, and after “graduating” from Aerobics I simply ran at a high aerobic pace and kept trying to go a bit farther.

Kenneth Cooper explains that beginning runners will work up to a certain distance and then find themselves hitting a plateau. As he explains it, once a runner reaches, say, 3 miles, he/she may be not be able to go farther for several weeks or months until an entire new network of capillaries opens up, whereupon he/she can suddenly go farther.

I have no idea if the science is correct, but it’s what I experienced. After weeks of topping-out at 2 miles, it was exciting to be able to easily run 3 miles. By gradually “nudging my edges,” I became a fit young fellow. In my job, I carried heavy loads 10-12 miles a day. After work I’d run 8 miles three times a week, and on Saturday I’d drive to San Francisco and run 14-17 miles in Golden Gate Park and around Lake Merced.

Then I got a job at Runners’ World, and my training fell apart. I was suddenly surrounded by runners who did things very differently. They had complicated scientific explanations for their special blend of mileage, speedwork, long runs, heart rate, and pace. And they’d all been running 10, 20, 30 years. Who was I to contradict them? I’d been running less than four years.

Where I had run from my heart, intuitively, I was now overwhelmed by mental doubts. It was as if there were a big Eye over me, analyzing everything I did and questioning and judging. “This book says this – but then this article says the opposite!” Surely, there had to be a single, precise, right way to train. And if I wasn’t doing that single, best, correct training, surely I was just wasting my time!

It was like Zeno’s paradox. At any instant, an arrow in flight isn’t moving, because the instant is a snapshot. Therefore, if the arrow cannot move in a single instant it cannot move in any instant. Therefore the arrow cannot move.

It’s nutty-cakes, because it uses logic to break the fluid, continuous motion of the arrow into small pieces. In fact, Zeno’s paradox is intended to illustrate the limitations of reason and logic.

I made a similar mistake. I tried to break running into tiny, unrelated parts.

Eventually, I realized that the times when I “knew” with the greatest firmness were when there was a strong feeling of rightness in my heart.

Carl Ellsworth was a scientist. He quietly tested his methods. And the “proof” was a 3:05 marathon at age 64.

Carl was a polished runner. He was a work of art. In his wabi-sabi way, he was a beautiful man.

I’ve moved on since 1995. As I look back over my career as a runner, I realize that I’ve learned the most by simply running and paying attention, and not thinking too much – like Carl.

I’ve refined the sensitive instrument that lets me hear my body’s lessons. As you know if you’ve read these pages, that instrument is the heart.

I’m a work in progress. I’m still sculpting my runner’s understanding. And I still  make mistakes.

Yesterday I ran 3 hours. I ran at a moderate pace for 2 hours, then did 6 x 2 minutes at 96% to 99% of max HR. It was a wildly unconventional run, because it wasn’t LSD or speedwork. Yet it felt entirely harmonious. Or, almost entirely.

The first two repeats were ridiculously easy. They were smooth as butter. The next two were an enjoyable stretch. But the last two were strained. I no longer had the inner assent of my heart. I should have stopped at four.

Tuning my heart allows me to run hard, even though I’m an old man. Sure, I do still make mistakes. It’s part of learning. But I’m no longer as confused as I was, 36 years ago when I worked at Runner’s World.

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