By November of 1984, I’d raced enough that by the 17th of November when I ran a 20:17 four-mile… that should have been enough to call it quits. But then my former coach and then-business associate Trent Richards got involved in a big race out in Rosemont, and he called me to sign up. It was a Turkey Trot that was attracting world-class runners like Mark Nenow, the Kentucky graduate that had recently set a 10K road race record.
So it was tempting to rev up the engine one more time. I showed up at the Rosemont convention center convinced that I still had one more race left in me. I’d managed a 14-mile training run the week before, and got some light prep running done that week for a total of 40 miles, but something definitely felt off inside me. Distance runners that have trained all year and are getting near “past-peak” conditioning know the feeling. You become stale. It’s like having an anxiety in your system that won’t go away.
At that point, I should have listened to the advice of Marty Liquori in his book Guide for the Elite Runner. Once you’re raced out, it’s time to put away the racing flats and go back to slow running. I could have skipped that race and no one would ever have known.
But I’d been living the edge for a few weeks and couldn’t turn around. Back on the 20th of October, the week after the Frank Lloyd Wright Run victory in Oak Park, I signed up for a big-time event in Lincoln Par to try my luck running with the true elites. On the starting line, I stood next to Alberto Salazar and Thom Hunt and Keith Brantly and other emerging national and world-class runners, I decided to go out with the lead pack and hold on for as long as I could. The first mile was 4:42, and already I was falling behind. The two-mile split was 9:52. I hit three miles at 15:03 and four miles at 20:19. Again, those were pretty good pace markers for a sub-elite runner. But heading into the last mile I was running on exhaust fumes and finished in 25:30. Way back in April I’d run a 24:49 with energy to burn. But that was the start of the season. Now I’d learned yet again that I was no indomitable, and I certainly was no phenom in the making.
So in late November, I stood in the crowded field of the Turkey Trot feeling exhausted mentally and physically. There was a mass of runners all around me, and I had no real appetite to get up front where the best of them stood.
Off we went, and from the get-go my legs felt near dead. I managed a 4:50 first mile, came through two miles in 10:02, ran through three in 15:10 and hit four miles in 21:00. By then I was cooked. I hit the five-mile mark in 26:30 and even walked a bit. Near tears. Then I jogged through the six-mile point at 32:00 and turned off the course. I had no interest in finishing the race. It meant nothing yet took a whole bunch out of me. I wrote in the journal: “Tired and distracted from the start. Pretty disgusting effort, really. Shouldn’t have raced but felt the possibility of an undertrained miracle. Instead experienced the woes of a stale effort. Good time to start the winter.”
I’d felt good all that week but that’s because I’d finally let up in training enough to give myself a break. In truth I was a maxxed out distance runner with little left in the tank.
Cross country calls
The calendar turned over into December and I was taking it super-easy when a few of the Running Unlimited guys called me up about a cross country race to be held in a forest preserve near Schaumburg. I thought “What the heck?”
The day turned out to be fresh and clear, not too cold for running. The five-mile course included some jumps over hay bales and the like, and I was in my element with all the steeplechase background I had. I ran relaxed and happy and with no real burdens on my brain, I ran 26:39 and won the race going away. That was a nice way to close down a year that began in January with a couple indoor track races. I’d set PRs at 5K on the track (14:47) 5K on the road (14:57) four miles on the road (19:49) and five miles on the road (24:47). I also set a PR at the 10K of 31:10, a PR at 10-miles (53:30) the half marathon (1:10:58), and the 25K at 1:24:47.
IN terms of results, I won five or six races including the Arlington Heights Library Run, the Community Classic 10k, the Mt. Prospect 5K, the Frank Lloyd Wright 10, the Warrenville 10K, an indoor two-mile, and finished second or third in several others. All in all, a very good year.
That was all on top of about 3000 miles of trainingor an average of nearly 60 miles per week.
What can other runners learn from all of this? Here’s a list of ten observations that I might call “lane changes.” In other words, moving out of whatever lane you’re in for a fresh and informed change of pace in thinking is always good.
- There does actually come a time when “enough is enough.” Once you’re stale, let it rest.
- Getting constant colds is also a sign of overtraining. While it was a successful year, I did get sick several times through too much intensity, too often.
- It’s possible to improve considerably with sufficient dedication, but the existing talent of every runner ultimately has finite possibility. “It is what it is.”
- For journeyman runners like me, it’s possible and likely far more practical to expect to work full-time. The gains earned from having unlimited training time are not the answer to limited talent. Be honest with yourself.
- There is considerable joy to be found in racing your hardest and best during the period of your life when it is most practical to do so. That tends to be in the early 20s through the late 20s. Some runners do get great results in their early 30s, and perhaps it is wise to take a longer view of what the push for improvement should look like. Rather than trying to jam it all into a couple years after college, think in terms of a longer-scale rate of improvement.
- Life balance is important. But so is understanding that “life balance” also comes from figuring out what it is that drives you, for better or worse, and coming to grips with your true motivations for running or any other endurance sport.
- Running races or competing in endurance sports is often a question of managing “nerves” so that you don’t collapse under self-inflicted pressure. Always remember that 90% of the drama in any situation is in your own head.
- Running and endurance training can help people (like me) cope with conditions such as anxiety and depression. But too much concentration and pressure and self-criticism flips the model around until it becomes its own source of fear. Be wise and step back to consider what it is that drives you to worry, be anxious or nervous before events. Think as if you were looking back at yourself ten or twenty years in the future. What would you tell yourself? How would you see your efforts? Can you give yourself credit for doing your best? Then give yourself credit in the present moment, and let your body and mind do the work.
- Let yourself “enjoy the wins” if you earn them.
- Forgive yourself for the occasional failure. It happens to all of us.