Ward Nicholson

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My distance-running story: the bridge from past to present, Part 3

Sometimes lessons have to be learned more than once, or in more than one context. Or they may be learned incompletely or only in retrospect. There may be many fallow years where little learning at all seems to take place. All of these played a role in my experiences across the years with longer, slower mileage-based running versus shorter, more intense training. Now things have come full circle with the chance to try again and tie it all together.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

I cannot now remember the exact reasons why my running began tailing off after college. It wasn’t any single thing, but a number of them. It wasn’t the fact that I was no longer competing, because I had continued running for another three or four years on my own after my first and only university cross-country season as a freshman.

Maybe in part it was the fact that, not long after graduating, I had embarked on my first serious love relationship. But beyond the overwhelming nature of the “new life experience” that the relationship represented for me, I was exploring other new things in-depth at the same time: Eastern philosophy and alternative consciousness, meditation, yoga, organic gardening, the idea of appropriate-scale “small is beautiful” technologies, and so forth. (This was the early 1980s just after the flowering of these movements in the 1960s and 70s.) All of this impacted my drive and motivation for other pursuits.

Then there was the new network of friends and acquaintances I was introduced to through the relationship. As well, without a clear career direction to pursue after college, despite a degree in business (for me, a fallback since I did not know what I wanted to do), I felt buffeted about. To make ends meet, I took a fairly physical job for a couple of summers and the intervening year working as a golf course greenskeeper, which siphoned off some of the physical energy required for a discipline like running.

After that, I got a job in computer operations that lasted the better part of a year, with a huge manufacturer in the area, running room-sized laser printers that spit out incessant financial, inventory, and other reports for the company bigwigs and other white-collar corporate drones, and that paid fairly well. However, it required working third shift, which played havoc with my schedule and put a damper on my energy levels. After a full week off from the job at one point, I felt so much better physically when back on a normal daily wake/sleep cycle that I realized third shift was detrimental to my health, and I needed to make a change.

Partway through this stint, then, I decided to go back to the university for classes in computer programming. The idea was to take advantage of my natural facility with computers — still a relatively new thing at the time — to springboard into a new career like a another co-worker I was friendly with, who was avidly pursuing a burgeoning interest in programming. This way I would be able to lift myself up and out of the looming specter of what could otherwise become a future of corporate dronedom, just like that of the company hacks my stacks of laser-printer output fed.

Unfortunately, the added schedule of university courses loaded me down more, both physically and mentally, of course. After a single semester I couldn’t endure the grind any longer, and lost interest.

Next up was a second-shift job working in the word-processing department of another major corporate employer for a couple of years, which was a lot better for both my daily schedule and health. But it was another job that was not going anywhere for me, and I wasn’t sure what was next.

All told, these varying forces pushing and pulling on me from different directions were a lot to handle, some coming all at the same time, others in fairly rapid succession. So many things were in flux, with the ground continually shifting under my feet, that I did not have the stable mental and physical environment I would have needed to pursue a discipline like running consistently, at least at a serious level.

Part of the issue, too, was that even if I had gotten the urge to up-level my running once again — which I briefly toyed with once — my girlfriend was unhappy that it took focus away from “us.” While she was supportive of exercise at a relaxed, modest level for general health, dedication of the sort I would have devoted to running was not on her agenda. Not that I really blamed or resented her for it. As mentioned, there were plenty of other candidates for why my focus had been diverted from running into other things during this new life phase.

Perhaps another reason had something to do with the fact that I had by now moved from the small town of less than 10,000 where I grew up, and was living in a much larger city of a few hundred thousand, situated itself within a metropolitan area of nearly half a million. No longer would I have been able to run the bulk of my miles on rural dirt roads — they would have to have been done on urban or residential neighborhood streets instead.

Of course, today the latter is what I do most of the time, and I have adapted. But back then, it was probably just one more factor detracting from my previous experience with running that made it seem less enchanting than before.

If I had to boil everything down during this period to its essence, I would say that with my mind opening up to and grappling with all these new experiences, running just didn’t seem as important within the overall scheme of things any longer for me. I was in the process of growing into and acclimating to a new worldview occasioned by the exposure to Eastern thought and related experiences and practices. Mentally it was a very refreshing cross-fertilization that brought a good deal of balance after the Western religious and philosophical outlooks that had circumscribed and formed the backdrop for what I had been taught earlier in my life. Nonetheless, the process commanded a large portion of my time then for a number of years.

However, whatever the initial reasons were for my running having declined to a low ebb, what brought it to a complete halt was starting my first business — a freelance typesetting service — in my mid-20s. I had previously had trouble finding a career direction, but now through the good fortune of serendipity (more on that here) had found something I was enthused about and felt highly motivated to succeed at. Those who have never been self-employed or married to someone who is, probably cannot understand. But just to stay in business for more than a few years is something of a feat in itself, and the nature of self-employment can often be all-consuming.

You alone are responsible for whatever needs to be done to keep the ship afloat. There is no one else you can fall back on, other than subcontracting out work when things get too demanding, and often not even that choice is available. Most weeks I was working 70 hours. Add to that the fact commercial typesetting was driven almost entirely by the advertising industry, which is a relentlessly deadline-driven field, and the demands and emotional stress often went through the roof.

All semblance of running or exercising dropped away while I attempted to secure the stability and future of my business. After eight stressful years of this, however — albeit rewarding years I enjoyed career-wise — my health crashed due to a combination of poor diet, chronically insufficient sleep, and the unrelenting deadline stresses. To regain my health, there was no real choice but to try to scale back the workload and stress level, and “get on the straight and narrow” with diet and sleep and other lifestyle choices.

One of these was that, eventually, I started running again.

Higher-mileage and particularly LSD-style (long, slow distance) training had by this time fallen into disfavor, at least in the United States. For a couple of decades or so — from perhaps the latter half of the 1980s up into the first half of the 2000s — the idea had taken hold that less mileage but with significantly higher overall intensity was better.

Presumably part of the scientific reasoning for this was based on what turned out to be, in retrospect, a rather myopic misinterpretation of the “specificity of training” principle. (Basically, this means you become trained to do best what you actually do in workouts, and therefore the training that should work best is what most closely mimics the demands of the event in which you will be performing or racing.)

In my view, though, the Achilles heel of these studies was another factor. The initial wave of exercise physiology studies during this time period did show that over limited time periods, shorter, much more intense workouts (lactate threshold runs, tempo runs, intervals of various types) improved fitness much better than did longer, slower running. And the tempting corollary, therefore, was that there was little value to slower running except as “recovery runs” in between the harder workouts.

But this science was all done with very short-term experimental time horizons: the studies were quite abbreviated in duration, often spanning no longer than perhaps 10 to 12 weeks, or even less. Of course shorter, more intense workouts will improve performance more over such a short time span. However, actual training and long-term sustainable improvement needs to take place in a year-round context over many years before an elite athlete’s career is finished.

In addition, the improvements with much-higher-intensity training tend to stall out after a time on a steady diet of it, and when continued indefinitely also lead to overtraining, burnout, or mental staleness and lack of enthusiasm. Plus, no truly knowledgeable coach with extensive real-world experience would recommend that one type of workout, or the intensity of it, take precedence at the expense of others. It’s the balance and mix and progression of them over months and years that matters.

Nowadays we know, too, that the more mileage one does, the greater the numbers and development of capillaries in muscle, for oxygen delivery, the greater the numbers and functioning of mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells, and the higher the level of aerobic-enzyme activity. And you simply cannot sustain higher mileage if too much of it is intense.

Once I had more or less reclaimed my health and a good deal of fitness in my mid-30s, I got interested in competing again. But given what was in the air at the time, as covered just above, despite my past experience, I ended up succumbing to the view that considerably fewer but more high-intensity miles might be better for competitive development.

Or rather, it wasn’t so much that I entirely bought the idea, because I still thought putting in decent mileage along with the high-intensity work, or in lieu of an excess of it, would have been preferable. But it seemed like it would be a good compromise if one’s time or energy to devote to training was limited. Which, still being self-employed, mine was to an extent, even though I had scaled back the workload.

And so, based in part on the “higher intensity is much more important than mileage” ethos during this ensuing era, in my mid-30s I competed again for two or three years on the local age-group road-racing circuit utilizing some of these ideas.

But while I did fairly well (though not great), I hit a wall in improvement after a while that I couldn’t get past. This was because — hindsight being 20/20, obviously — despite doing a longer run once every 10 days or so (9 or 10 miles at the time, not that long, of course, for someone aiming at competition), I just never built much of a weekly mileage base.

Of course, now the running community has discovered through experience, if nothing else, that the results of American distance runners during the shorter-but-more-intense-is-better era turned out to be much worse than the high-mileage era that preceded it. And science now backs up more and more the fact that higher mileage, even including a fairly substantial proportion of LSD-style miles, is a very important and underlying component of competitive fitness.

But even though I tended to lean that way by nature, my ambitions still had the better of me, so the lesson had yet to completely sink in.

And then, as if to sidetrack me again, I ran into another issue: In my late 30s, my recovery ability between hard workouts, which was never that great compared to the other ambitious runners I knew or had trained with, began to decline. This happens to most runners when they hit that age, but you tend to either think you’ll be one of the exceptions, or be able to deal with it somehow without it affecting you too much.

This wasn’t the case. Because I went ahead and continued to try to run three hard workouts a week, with slowing recovery ability I felt worse on my “easy days” in between the hard days, and they became more of a slog. After several months of this, I finally acquiesced. For me that meant I ended up just taking the former easy days off completely. It did not really occur to me then that rather than taking a few days a week completely off, I might have been able to either run my hard days less hard or less frequently, or my easier days easier than before, or some combination of both.

This meant that my mileage got cut significantly. But by maintaining my longer — and also pretty hard — run of 9 to 10 miles each 10 to 14 days, and retaining my tempo runs along with some intervals and strides, I was able to make things work for a while longer and achieve virtually the same competitive results as before.

But sustaining a high percentage of harder miles in this way put me closer to the edge health-wise. After one road race in the winter, a 4-mile, I came back and hit a hard 10-miler several days later without enough post-race recovery days beforehand. As a result, my immune system got beat down and I ended up coming down with walking pneumonia. But since my fitness had been at a peak, I did not want to let up.

So later that same week or the next, even with walking pneumonia, I insisted on doing an interval workout (repeat 880s, I believe) on the track in frigid conditions with snow coming down, fighting my way through a couple of inches of powdered snow on the ground. The result was that I trashed my lungs, and it took many months for them to recover.

This incident finally woke me up to my own taskmaster tendencies in terms of hard workouts. With new respect for my body’s limits, I sobered up, got the message, and scaled things back to heal up. Also, I decided to swear off competition for the foreseeable future and give first priority to my health.

For several years thereafter, I went along running two or occasionally three days a week at easier paces, throwing in a tempo run perhaps every week or two, since I had always enjoyed them, but being careful not to overdo in terms of effort.

Eventually, though, I became somewhat bored with this pattern, and in my late 40s began to get the bug to compete again on the local road race circuit. I went out and watched a few races where I renewed an acquaintance or two, and began training harder again, though with much more respect for my body’s limits this time around.

I returned to the previous competitive pattern of three workouts per week with days completely off between, but with some modifications. The longer run was still done at a hard effort, or at least was typically done as either a progression run or included a fast-finish section. I did one hard tempo workout per week, but instead of a single sustained effort of 4 miles or so, split it up into 2 or 3 x 1.5 miles or something similar. Shorter track-type intervals, though, I skipped, but included strides of about 150m on some of my easy days for neuromuscular efficiency at speed.

After several months of this, I was in much better shape, but still a good notch below where I felt I should be and wanted to be (taking additional age into account). The next phase might have been to begin competing, but since I wasn’t where I wanted to be, I decided to take a break for a number of weeks to regroup and recharge, and then tried ramping up the training again.

Not far into the new training cycle, however, my mind and body began to rebel against the frequency or at least intensity of hard efforts I had been attempting, and so, reluctantly, I thought better of it. I discovered this time that I just really did not enjoy the hard, very high-intensity training that much anymore. Less frequently, yes, but not the regular diet that I believed at the time was necessary to compete well.

So, suitably chastened and educated by this rebellion of mind/body, though a bit disappointed — albeit with simultaneous feelings of relief — I ratcheted things back down to a lower level again, running for the most part just a couple of days a week for fitness and general enjoyment. Over the last few years, having become more interested in less one-sided, more balanced physical fitness, I also added a couple of days of bodyweight strength training as well to complement the running.

This newer equilibrium seemed to suit me, and is where things remained. Until recently…

I had thought, after abandoning the idea of competition again in my late 40s, I would probably never compete again. But recently — now in my late 50s — I unexpectedly found myself with the itch to ramp things up and compete once more, with a new perspective I have not had before. Which brings us back to the present day.

This has been surprising to me, but also gratifying at the same time. Because I now realize, long after my prime physical years, I never really pulled the things together I learned along the way and put them into practice in the way that I could have. The things I learned always seemed to come too late, or in retrospect, or after I had moved on to some other thing.

I guess I had thought that, due to the lesser physical capacities one experiences with age, competition would not be as fun now at a lower performance level. Or that, as before, too much pain or at least highly intense training stress would need to be the price. Or that the fruits would not be as enjoyable, rewarding, or meaningful at my current stage in life when I had already accomplished much. Or that the time had otherwise passed.

But it turns out I would really like to try again. In a different way, after many fallow years, finally taking the lessons of the past to heart and pulling them all together. Just for the heck of it. Just for the fun of it. For the adventure.

And why not? Sometimes events conspire to take you in a direction you didn’t anticipate. But if they didn’t, and you weren’t open to it, what kind of a life would it be?

I’ll look at what led to this turn of events in a future post.

End of 3-part series
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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