Ward Nicholson

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My distance-running story: the bridge from past to present, Part 2

The initial flush of success that I experienced my first, and only, season running competitively in college turned out not to be worth it, at least on my terms. I quit the team but kept running on my own, and explored longer runs for the exhilaration and satisfaction of it. I also got in great shape, though I had nothing to show for it outwardly. But that was okay by me.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

My freshman year in college, I managed to pull off an accomplishment that I was perhaps more proud of than anything I had achieved previously, competition-wise. Paralleling earlier events when I made the high school varsity cross-country team my freshman year (covered here), the same thing occurred when I made 7th and last man on the university varsity cross-country team. This time it was as a walk-on, beating out all the other college freshmen, most of whom had some kind of partial running scholarship.

But it wasn’t because I was any better than them, really. My inborn talent was decent, but except for two or three out of the eight freshmen — one of whom was a walk-on as well — based on our previous competitive results in high school, while fairly close to the others in ability, I was perhaps not quite at the same level.

Whereas on my high school team the previous year I was one of the unelected de facto workout leaders who tended to set the tone by example — unfortunately helping beat most of us into the ground on interval workouts — on the university team it was just the opposite. My body just couldn’t take all the hard-effort, collegiate-level training that the other runners could, even most of the freshmen, so I started sandbagging in workouts when needed just to survive.

By this time, I had learned enough to know when my body’s capacity to absorb punishment was being exceeded, and when to back off and take an easy day with a slow recovery run. But since that wasn’t fully possible in the university team situation, at least to the degree I really needed, some days I would just lag behind as much as I could, whatever the workout for the day might be.

This applied not only to interval workouts and fartlek (Swedish for “speedplay,” intermittent bouts of speed during steady runs), but sometimes longer runs. One example, a funny scenario: On a 14-mile run that we did on back-country roads that was supposed to be done at a certain effort, I was already wiped out from the previous day’s workout, and decided on my own to just take it as an LSD (long, slow distance) run to try and recuperate. (If one can actually recuperate very well on a 14-miler at college-freshman age, even when done as an LSD run, that is.)

At first, one other freshman (one of the more talented, but an 800-meter/mile specialist not as capable over longer distances) who was also feeling tired that day, hung back with me. But then as the run proceeded, even he left me behind as well.

When everyone else except me had finished, they realized no one knew where the heck I was. So they were forced to go driving around all over the place in the team van on these back roads looking around to pick me up for the trip back to campus. (I was far enough behind everyone else that I believe I may have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way.)

That sort of thing didn’t make me particularly popular. Not to mention I was trying out a partially raw-food diet about then and, let us say, my capacity for intestinal gas production was at an all-time high. Not great when doing group runs and workouts.

Because of the save-my-own-skin sandbagging I engaged in, I went into time trials less fatigued than the other freshmen, and managed (barely) to eke out finishes a little ahead of them for team cross-country meet selections. In hindsight — and this is something that hadn’t occurred to me till now — I would imagine beating the other freshmen out for the final varsity team spot only added insult to injury, as far as they were concerned.

Imagine being in their shoes: Here you have a guy who usually lags toward the back of the pack in workouts; who doesn’t seem to demonstrate the same ability you have; who’s more of an uncommunicative introvert than usual even for a distance runner; except of course when he’s periodically and even more silently wafting farts your way; doesn’t appear comfortable taking part in the typical team banter; who therefore doesn’t fit in that well with the rest of the team; and then — then! — this fart factory somehow manages to outrun you and snag the one remaining varsity spot. And he’s a walk-on at that!

Was I popular with the other freshmen? I don’t think I cared about it much or thought too hard about it back then. But I doubt it. :-)

Here once again, however, as in high school, the coach just wasn’t that great, much contrary to his public reputation. Yes, he was much more knowledgeable than my high school coach in one sense, because he knew the lingo and the various workouts that could be applied, and a good deal of the rationale behind them. But he had little idea how to put everything together into a coherent, overall progressive plan over the course of a season.

Rather, what he cooked up was a kind of hodge-podge stew of workouts that he somehow tried to bring to a boil by the time of the end-of-season conference meet, but without a real recipe for it. He also paid little attention and had no real idea how each runner was actually faring, physically and mentally, under the regimen individually. Everyone got the same indiscriminate workouts, and you could either hack it or not.

Instead, he had built his reputation as a coach not because he was actually a good coach but because he was a good recruiter. This was a crucial discrepancy that most people, at least on the outside, didn’t realize, nor did I until running under him for a season.

He was good at snagging top regional talents who were superior enough they would have raced well anyway (with the team often winning at conference), but injured a lot of runners with the unrelenting workload requirements and one-size-fits-all program. This included some of the best talents and top upperclassmen as well. It was a bit like the survival-of-the-fittest Kenyan system where the training leaves many littered by the roadside or burned out, with only the strong surviving, except without such spectacular results.

In the end, I found that the achievement of having made the varsity cross-country team as a university freshman wasn’t worth it to me. Not at this university or at least not for this coach. I was doing it for… what, exactly? Achievement wasn’t everything. Running was ceasing to be fun or even satisfying anymore, and to me wasn’t worth the cost exacted by this particular team situation.

The training wasn’t adjusted at all for freshmen, and my body just couldn’t handle all the hard, stressful workouts. Yes, I had eked out the final spot on the varsity team, about which I was pleased. But I didn’t have a single race that season where I felt good, nor did I feel I performed well competitively.

Even having sandbagged in practice to survive, I didn’t make it to races feeling fresh and ready to roll. Every cross-country race — typically four or five miles at this level — was a very strained, mentally long-drawn-out, tortured effort, with outcomes that didn’t approach my potential. It was as if through a feat of legerdemain I had captured a spot on the varsity that should have been someone else’s, then could not prove I deserved it by producing a performance for the team in meets when it really counted.

So even though I had made varsity, I quit after the end of the season, and didn’t go out for track the following spring, or cross-country again the next year either. For me, this turned out to be a very good thing.

I have found periodically in life, at certain junctures, that despite the conventional wisdom in sport or elsewhere in life decrying it, quitting may be exactly what is needed because it frees you up and paves the way for doing something new. Quitting can be refreshing and a source of renewal, and this was exactly one of those times.

After that, I just wanted to enjoy running again — on my own, with full control over my training year-round, not just during off-seasons. While I was no longer competing, that was only in the formal sense. I wasn’t someone who necessarily required actual races or a seasonal competition schedule to bring that same outlook to what I was doing.

My mindset was still competitive, if mostly self-competitive. At the same time, I enjoyed that. I saw no conflict between the two, as long as I wasn’t being forced to do ill-advised things that were ignorant or self-destructive like what the coaches I had run under had often insisted on.

The shift mentally was that instead of worrying so much about my time/distance performance for a given training session, or using that as a gauge, I started focusing more on the number of miles I could run per week, or how far I could go on an individual run and still finish it feeling “easy” or at least well within myself. The idea was to slowly “build” my reserves of energy and fitness over time like a bank account instead of “spending” them on hard training sessions too much.

I started limiting the hard efforts to maybe once every week or so to keep in touch with speedier stuff, but ran mostly easy in between. I still liked running hard periodically to enjoy the sensation of flying over the ground, and to keep within spitting distance of the kind of maximal fitness that racing would have required. But I wasn’t doing anything like the three or occasionally even four hard workouts a week that the university cross-country team had been doing. (Three or four, depending on how you define “hard”… a longer run can be almost as stressful as an interval workout if the pace exceeds your “easy pace” capacity by too much for a given distance.)

So I might do periodic semi-time trials each week or two to break up all the LSD, but as a “reasonably hard” effort, not gut-busting. In addition, maybe once or occasionally twice/week, I might do what’s called a “progression run” — where you work up to a “fast finish” segment over the last few or last several miles of a longer run just to enjoy the sensation of speed and floating over the ground at a fast pace — but not so much as to grind me down and leave me wasted afterward.

The compensation in running easy more of the time was that I was able to run more miles per week, or at least more miles a lot more enjoyably, and in a way I could recover and profit from, rather than getting beat down and compromising long-term fitness. And since I loved to run, that was a real bonus.

I got in superb “endurance shape” and started covering a lot more ground on my longer runs, 12 to 14 miles every 10 to 14 days, even 16, 18, or 20 on occasion. The overall mileage per week usually amounted to somewhere between 50 to 70, because I still took easier, shorter days, and occasionally would take a day off a week if needed, dropping the compulsion to feel like I had to extend any “consecutive days” running streak.

During this time period I was continuing to live in my small hometown with my parents to save cost while commuting to the university 20 miles away. As well, being a natural loner and lover of peace and quiet, I’m absolutely sure I would have hated dorm life. So, I still had access to all the country dirt roads around town to run on.

Sometimes I would be out there running halfway to the next small town and back on loop routes over back roads, which was just fun in and of itself. If I had wanted to get ready to compete again, I could have ramped things up over six months to a year by adding interval workouts and so forth, and gotten into better race-shape than ever before. But I wasn’t really interested in that anymore.

Once, on a bit of a lark (though a serious one), I even joined a running acquaintance — who had been on a competing team from another town’s high school not far away — for a 30-mile training run. After high school he had gotten into training for ultras, and became friends and running buddies with one of the first ultrarunners in our area (this was early days for ultras) who was about 10 or 15 years older, and they would do weekly or biweekly long runs together.

For this 30-mile run, my friend told me they planned on running about 8:30/mile pace. My usual training pace for longer runs — mine were typically in the 12 to 20-mile range — took place at 7:30 pace or so (not including any fast-finish segments), so I thought/hoped I would be able to handle it. Later, my acquaintance also told me his ultrarunning buddy had been skeptical about the idea of me tagging along, and didn’t think I’d be able to hang with them.

But it turned out I was indeed able to do so, and had no problem except for the last three miles when I finally started to get fatigued, but also pretty seriously overheated. Since this was late spring, and though we started off at something like 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. in the morning, by the time we were finishing up, it was a good 4½ hours or more later, including water stops and breaks to pee at gas stations along the way, around the noon hour, and the temperature was starting to become a factor.

The summer before my junior year at the university, word got back to the cross-country and track coach that I had been running a lot on my own and was in good shape. A large percentage of runners on the team were injured from the coach’s unrelenting, one-size-fits-all training regime, although he himself did not seem to realize that was the cause, and he was hurting for athletes. So he dropped by my summer job (the boss there was an ex-shot-putter on the track team who had graduated, but was still in touch with the coach), and offered me a modest scholarship to come back on the team.

I turned him down, however, because I was enjoying myself too much doing what I was doing. I knew that my fitness would get torn down rather than built up if I was again forced to undergo the far-too-much-hard-effort training that being on the team required. In an ideal world, it might have been a different story if the coach had let me manage my own training. Given another go-round of my own choosing, I could probably have pulled it off, achieved new PRs, and become more competitive than ever.

Of course, “coulda, woulda…” and all that. The truth was, at that time, the freedom of the dirt roads all to myself, the magnetic pull of the long run, and the feeling of slowly gathering endurance and power — the intoxicating soma of fitness brewed as I required it — fed my soul in a deeper, more immersive and fulfilling way.

But the arc of this movement was to last for only a relatively brief season in my life, suspended between the possibilities of evanescent youth and the demands of the oncoming adult world: An untraveled place where I would have to make my way without knowing where I was headed, or what lay on the path just before me.

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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