Values of a Distance Runner
In the mid-1990s I worked at a health food market in the Sierra foothills near Nevada City, California.
One evening, a gentleman with shoulder-length white hair walked up to the counter and said, “I noticed your T-shirt. Do you run ultramarathons?”
I said, “Yeah, but I run them very slowly.”
It turned he was 64-year-old Carl Ellsworth, the USATF Northern California Road Race Series champion in his age group for two years straight.
Carl said he was in a group of over-40 runners who met on Wednesday evenings for speedwork at the local high school track. He invited me to join them, and I said I’d give it some thought.
I didn’t have to think long. I’d been training long and slow for marathons and ultras, and a change was due.
A runner’s career progresses in stages. In the first stage, we work to establish basic fitness. It’s an exciting time – as fitness increases, we feel alive, energized, and able to easily do physical feats that we formerly found daunting. Climb up a flight of stairs? Sure, no problem – why not run it? Carry heavy grocery bags? Trivial!
It’s a time for ironing-out problems on the physical plane – Which shoes to buy? What fuels to take? What about water and electrolytes? What’s up with this blister? Am I ready for a 5K?
The first stage is primarily about the body. As the newbie stage draws to a close, we may feel a growing urge to go longer, faster, or both. And it’s funny how, once we commit to training for a marathon or fast 5K, the tools that we need tend to show up almost as if sent by a higher intelligence.
When Carl Ellsworth walked into the market, I’d completed the second stage of a runner’s career. I was long past basic fitness – I’d run something like 10 marathons and a handful of ultras. The second phase was about the romance of running.
During those years, running was about the heart. I harbored affectionate thoughts of elite distance runners and followed their careers – Ann Trason, Ron Clarke, Mark Plaatjes.
During long runs, I passed the time revising my Every Runners Friend list, composed of runners whose expansive qualities inspired me – Joe Henderson for his incredible service to runners, and his impartial friendliness toward those who were seeking to improve themselves through running. Mark Plaatjes, for dropping out of the New York City marathon with an injury and hobbling to the nearest aid station to massage the slower runners. Ann Trason for showing up at northern California trail races to hand cups of fuel to over-the-hill plodders like me.
Those were the feeling years. My “style” as a runner reflected the heart values I was trying to cultivate – I ran primitively, with the least equipment possible. Twenty-milers were done shirtless, wearing shorts, shoes, a visor, and carrying only a couple of handheld bottles, a few electrolyte pills, and a small of bottle of fuel paste.
I chose training routes and races for their inspirational value, and for how I felt when I ran them. I recall a gorgeous single-track trail that led through miles of oak forest and lush green ground cover.
Frank Shorter claimed that runners get more out of their training when they run in places where they feel good. I think he was right – we draw energy from trees, grass, birds, animals, and dirt trails. For me, dirt trails have the best vibes, concrete is second, and asphalt is lifeless.
I joined Carl Ellsworth’s speedwork group and found the Wednesday-evening sessions exhilarating. Our training was completely unscientific – we ran hard repeats, to an unvarying formula of “three miles as fast as we can go.” Whether the day’s impromptu schedule, announced by Carl, called for three miles, six halves, or a blend of miles, halves, and quarters, we went hell bent for leather.
We developed wonderful speed – at my first session I could only run a 7:37 mile. Six months later, at age 53 and on pathetic talent, I ran mile repeats in 6:30 and a 10-mile race in 70 minutes.
I had entered the third stage of running: will power. Having become fit, and explored my heart with adventurous running, I was learning to focus my will and crank out big energy.
Later, I would explore running’s mental and spiritual dimensions. Each stage built upon the last. During the “Mind” stage, I acquired a heart monitor and found that it helped me deepen my experiences of the heart. Holding my heart rate under 67% for 40-60 minutes at the start of a run gave my body time to synchronize itself in preparation for fast, effortless running. And during the “Spirit” phase, the pace discipline imposed by the monitor helped me focus my mind and occasionally enter the fabled running “zone.”
Runners make the best progress, and feel the best, when they make the most of each stage of their careers. It’s tricky to get our training just right, so that it produces gains in body, heart, will, mind, and soul. But the rewards are worth the effort.