Ward Nicholson

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My distance-running story: the bridge from past to present, Part 1

Most of my competitive years in high school and college were a time of learning how to train on my own. Simultaneously, I was coping with several different coaches along the way, most of whom did not have a very good idea of what they were doing. It made for a career of ups and downs and unfulfilled potential, yet also fun times and hard-won training wisdom learned along the way.
Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Despite always having loved running for its own sake (see The Earth at My Feet for the story), I was so motivated by achievement and competition when I was younger and competing in high school and college that it sometimes worked to my detriment. Often, I went into competitions having “left my race on the training track,” so to speak.

I was well aware of the value of longer, slower, “mileage”-based training (i.e., what is sometimes termed LSD or “long, slow distance”) to lay a distance base, to be complemented by faster interval-based workouts — either concurrently or later in the training cycle. However, once the competitive season got underway, I/we (my teammates as well) still often overdid the latter at the expense of the former.

This was not entirely of my own choosing, since too much hard track-interval work was thrust upon the distance runners by coaches who didn’t know any better. However, even had I been entirely on my own, I still would probably have overdone it to some degree.

In high school — this being the era of the 1970s when 100 miles per week for national and world-class runners became the holy grail of training — I put in as much mileage as I reasonably could, given my teenage, still-maturing body. At that time I was averaging about 50 miles per week over the course of the entire year, but the weekly mileage distribution was bimodal. I piled on more miles in the off-seasons when training on my own, at least 60 and sometimes 70 or 80 miles per week. But during the competitive seasons (about two and a half to three months each for cross-country in the fall, and track in the spring) I could only manage about 40 miles.

This was because my own ambitions as well as our track coaches’ lack of knowledge about distance running often meant we ran ourselves into the ground with not only too much gut-busting interval work, but also tempo runs that too often bordered on time trials. As one often finds in high school, the head track coach, though well-meaning, was first and foremost a football coach — his primary expertise and what he truly cared about — doing double-duty with track and field, which he knew much less about, especially distance running. The story was very similar with the assistant coach.

The cross-country coach my freshman and sophomore years knew more what he was doing, and I liked him very much. He really cared about his runners, took a personal interest in each of us, and while firm, was very likable. His warmth and humanity were palpable, to me at least, and I instinctively knew he was “on my side.” Unfortunately, he left for a much-better-paying, non-teaching business opportunity halfway through my high school years, and another, new teacher took over cross-country coaching duties.

The new teacher and coach was an ex-Marine, although he had softened around the edges since his time in the service. Like the track coaches, he meant well but distance-running was not something he had any real knowledge about. As far as I knew, this was his first coaching assignment, certainly at least working with distance runners, so he was inexperienced and learning on the job.

The “no gain without pain” approach that was applied to a significant chunk of our training induced a high fatigue burden to recover from in between workouts. So with intense higher-speed training like this to handle during the track and cross-country seasons, even very many slow “recovery runs” in between for additional mileage and aerobic fitness were often too much extra stress for my body to handle.

In track, by the time the competitive season was nearing its end with regional and state meets, I would typically have lost much of the distance base I had built during the winter in the off-season. Too many in-season track intervals and extremely fast tempo runs simply sapped my energy for anything much more. In fairness, I can’t lay all blame on the track coach here, because like many runners, I often didn’t know when to hold back when it came to intervals in terms of the effort and speed.

Even though I would have done fewer interval sessions on my own, I was still targeting too-high speeds and/or too many high-speed repetitions over the shorter work intervals we did such as repeat quarter-miles (440 yards). (Note: This was the early to mid-1970s time period during the pre-metric era of American track and field.) The result was that the repeats were much more exhausting and did not do as much good as longer repeats at somewhat slower though still very brisk paces would have — such as 880y, 1,100y, 1320y, or one mile. With the latter approach, the overall volume of work (in terms of total distance covered over the course of an interval session) could have been greater but less taxing: a “win-win” on both counts in terms of resulting race-competitiveness and performance.

As a consequence of the above misdirected emphases, my competitive results in high school were very hit-or-miss. As the season progressed, often I ended up feeling fatigued, “flat,” and lousy on the starting line before the gun ever went off, and in the big season-ending meets I typically underperformed, with an exception or two here and there.

Here is one example: With eventual best times in my senior year of 4:34 for the mile and 9:40 for the 2-mile (my best event), I can recall one extremely intense interval workout we did with only four repeats, but that included among them two consecutive repeat miles that both turned out to be faster than I actually raced the mile in one meet. This workout consisted of 2 x mile, 1 x 880y, and 1 x 440y with perhaps 5, 6, 7, or 8 minutes rest between (I can’t really recall exactly — our rest intervals were always on the long side), and my times for the four work intervals were 4:52, 4:48, 2:12, and 60 seconds. (By the way, while I was no speed demon, this 440y repeat turned out to be the fastest 440 I ever ran. I never attempted a one-off when fresh.)

In a later meet, I felt fatigued enough even before stepping on the starting line for the mile event that I bombed out completely and could manage only a 4:53. That’s the kind of “leaving the race on the training track” approach I fell prey to much too often. By contrast, when I ran my 9:40 2-mile PR later in the year at regionals, and happened to have a better day, I ran perfectly evenly paced 4:50-4:50 splits, bettering twice in a row the mile time in the race where I had earlier bombed out.

But almost as sobering (and encouraging, actually) was the fact that even in this 2-mile PR, I still wasn’t quite at my best. While I didn’t feel terrible or anything, my energy levels were more or less just okay, not great. About an hour before the race, in fact, I had been feeling sluggish enough that, on my own, alone, I went out and ran a 4-mile training run at a moderate pace to try to somehow coax my body out of its lethargy and prod it into at least some kind of groove.

This was probably twice the total distance I normally would have run to warm up before a race, because you don’t want to go past the point in a warmup where you start to induce any added fatigue. But in this case, I felt it was a risk I had to take, since if I didn’t come away with at least 3rd place, I wouldn’t advance to the state meet the following week.

Fortunately, it worked, and by the time the race came around, at least I was feeling fairly decent, if not really my best. However, I could muster no kick at the end of the race, and finished several seconds behind two competitors and acquaintances whom I normally would have been in the thick of it with coming down to the wire.

When feeling truly good, although I was lacking in the speed department and not one of the top kickers, I usually could pull off a pretty darned decent kick, if not as good as the more speed-blessed guys. I believed then, and still do in retrospect, that I could have run more like high 9:20s to 9:30 in this race — which turned out to be the high-water mark of my high school days on the track — had I really been feeling near my best.

I mention this because that gap in performance would have meant the difference between being offered a partial running scholarship in college at the university I went to, like most of the other freshman distance runners on the team, rather than being a walk-on, based on what the other incoming freshmen were offered when gauged by their competitive high school results. That’s one very concrete example of what the overambitious approach to intervals ended up costing me.

Here is another example, but where just the reverse happened: About mid-season, I came down with the flu, and the coach let me skip that week’s hard workouts and just run easy for a few days to recover. He went ahead and entered me in the following week’s 2-mile at a major meet in the region, but did so with reservations. I was later told (after the race) by my distance-running teammates that he had predicted I would not do well because of the down week I had taken.

What ended up happening? Just the opposite. I felt very good and fresh, front-ran most of the race, and came away with my best time of the season to that point (a 9:50). And not only that. On the last lap, I blew away the second-place guy — an acquaintance from an opposing team who had been sitting on my shoulder virtually the entire race — with the best kick I had ever exhibited. I was able to sprint hard the entire last lap with a sustained, elevated finish, leaving him well behind in my wake.

But that kind of situation where I got a respite that brought a better training balance during the competitive in-season was the inadvertent exception not often repeated.

The head track coach was something of a gruff man, and he and I tended to butt heads, since I knew he knew little about distance running, and I am sure he knew I knew. It must have been hard for him. I was the only runner on the team who trained year-round, and because of that experience was one of the natural leaders among the other distance runners. Yet he had his position of authority to uphold.

Based on his football-coaching background working in the weight room, he attempted to get the distance runners to do some weight-training on the school’s Nautilus machine, in the dank bowels of a closed concrete room in the gym. After two or three sessions, however, I unilaterally bailed out on that, because I was not someone who had ample reserves of energy I could afford to spread around when training hard. Very quickly it became apparent to me how directly and negatively working with weights impacted the energy I could muster for high-level running workouts.

Other than kicking me off the team, which the coach refrained from doing — presumably since I was one of the top athletes and a needed point-scorer in meets — there was not much he could do. But it was a bit of a problem, because all of the other distance runners followed my lead, also taking a pass on any further weight training.

As I think about it further here, had the coach decided to boot me, it’s possible a couple of the other runners might have decided to quit and join me out of solidarity or frustration. In any event, he didn’t push the point, which avoided any potential team dissension.

But the coach had a lot of integrity and pulled no punches. Surprisingly — and I will give him this — about half to two-thirds of the way through my senior season, he cut me loose to run the workouts my own way, or even to run a different one on my own, if I wanted. He even took a page from what I was doing and got his own copy of a pioneering book back then that I had been basing some of my interval training on (Computerized Running Training Programs, by Gerry Purdy and James Gardner) to set up interval workouts for us.

I am sure it was probably at least as much frustration as anything else on his part about how much of a hardhead I could be that he freed me to do what I wanted. But looking back, it was also a testament to his willingness to change, at least if pushed hard enough. For that I am thankful and want to mention it here, because I never did so then.

Thirty-five years later, when the track coach came to my mom’s funeral a few years ago, I said, “Hi, Mr. P____, it is so good to see you!” and he merely replied in his gruff way, “Aaannhh…” But I truly did appreciate him showing up. And the high school cross-country coach my first couple of years also came to the funeral. Since my mom passed away too soon in her mid-70s, and was admired for her own athleticism, all the way to the end, by others who had played a role in sports in the town, it was a pleasure seeing these two men again who had figured so prominently in my early years running.

But it was around the point when the coach (understandably) washed his hands of me somewhat that I began to run my PRs that season. The example above where he let me take a down week on my own when I got sick, and I ended up running my best 2-mile to that point was, I think, a sort of prelude to the loosening of his grip, where he began to let me do my own thing more. While I ran the interval workouts just as hard as before, which was still a mistake on my part, I cut the number of sessions back some, and this gave me just enough extra headroom that I began to run better.

At least that was the case when I was able to get out of my own way, and wasn’t shooting myself in the foot…

So how did I do in the state meet 2-mile a week after the regional meet above where I had PR’d? Not so great. Because rather than tapering the week before — the value of which we had little knowledge about in those days, I decided I still needed more hard intervals. So I went out on my own just four or five days before the race, and did a 5 x 880y session with the repeats completed somewhere in the 2:20 to 2:25 range, if memory serves. (I had actually planned 6 x 880y, but couldn’t quite hack it.)

What I really could have used that week instead was mostly easy-paced LSD runs with just a couple of very-short-and-sweet speed sessions to stay sharp. Because you aren’t going to gain any more conditioning a week or less before a peak race that the body will have had time enough to assimilate or supercompensate for in time to do any good. The task, rather, is to simply rest up and stay sharp.

As an aside, these observations are all in retrospect, of course — one can only shake their head at the inexperience and lessons of youth. It would have helped tremendously to have had a truly knowledgeable coach to guide us and steer us away from such pitfalls, but that’s probably rare at high schools in smaller towns like ours was.

So I was left to learn on my own over time from my own experience and mistakes without good outside guidance. At least not other than what I was able to gather and glean from reading the relatively few books available then, along with whatever sporadic magazine articles on training that might be worthwhile. (Remember, this was a couple of decades before the blossoming of the internet. Nowadays, information is everywhere at your fingertips, but back then it was difficult and time-consuming to find. The process of studying and researching any given topic was a much slower process.)

But back to the week leading up to the state meet my senior year… It would have been sufficient, given all the prior interval work during the season, to do perhaps a couple of brief, light workouts that week of, say, 3 or 4 x 220y or 2 or 3 x 330y or 1 or 2 x 440y, complemented by a few strides on alternate days of 3 or 4 x 110y — and then beyond that, running no more than one-half my usual mileage. My impulse so often then was to push, push, push, when sometimes the opposite was needed: in this case, simply to step back a bit, rest, and let my energy build to a head by the day of the state-meet final.

The 5 x 880y session, though, was a full-on hard interval workout that left me fairly knackered as usual afterward. I consequently fizzled out in the state meet with a 9:52 for 5th place in our school-size division, while the top placers ran in the mid-9:30s neighborhood, which is right where I should have been myself, had I been fresh.

By contrast, a competing town’s team that we were friendly with, as well as with their top runners — whom I learned trained according to the above earlier-suggested approach targeting longer, slower intervals but with higher overall volume — performed better and better as a season would progress. Their best race efforts both individually and as a team came in the end-of-season championship meets when it really mattered.

One of the boys on this team, whom I had outperformed previously at 2 miles, took 2nd place in the state championship 2-mile in our division. Which could perhaps have been me instead — or at least it might have been a great battle with him down to the wire for an exhilarating and close 3rd, and knowing I was up to my best and had done my best. But a podium finish at the state track meet wasn’t to be.

And to get a further sense of the up-and-down, hit-or-miss character of my race performances in high school, compare this lackluster result at the state track meet that spring with how things turned out at the state cross-country meet the previous fall at 2 miles. There, it was me who took the runner-up spot, finishing with a good kick just a couple of seconds behind a more-talented teammate (who was a miler/half-miler during track season), coming across the line 5 or 10 seconds ahead of the same cast of characters who were to feature in the state 2-mile final.

Like the state track final, it was a day where I also wasn’t feeling my best. However, with a different coach (the ex-Marine) — who also didn’t know very much — but under whom we had done at least somewhat more balanced training with fewer draining high-speed intervals, I was better able to pull out a performance closer to my potential, even when feeling less than 100%.

After high school, soon after my first competitive season as a college freshman, I had finally learned enough, through continued reading and especially coaching myself through trial and error (mostly during off-seasons when I was free to do so without interference), that I began fully embracing a more balanced approach to training. The irony was, though, that I was now no longer competing.

By the time I had embarked on this shift in training, my prime years competing were over, and I was running mainly for enjoyment. For me, at that time, this consisted of much longer, slower distance training peppered with judicious amounts of tempo runs, something I had always enjoyed as well.

Had I still been oriented to competing, I would also have added a prudent amount of track intervals to the tempo runs I was doing, but at a more measured effort than previously, not to exhaustion like before. I also would have employed a more intelligent distribution of intervals up and down the speed/distance spectrum, and not nearly as draining, so as to maintain higher energy reserves. And all kept in better balance with the longer-distance work, along the lines of the 80/20 ratio of longer, easier runs to faster, more intense workouts that decades of experience and sport science are now both noting the best runners’ training plans converge on.

However, as things turned out, I never got to test out the results I might have achieved, because I had transitioned to running primarily for the fun, satisfaction, and adventure of taking longer runs. In preceding years, I had read a few early articles and booklets on LSD training before it became at all popular, so it had been in the back of my mind for a while. But what pushed me into actually begin exploring it was another factor: mental burnout. (Surprise, surprise, given what I’ve covered above, eh?)

The turning point was to be my first — and last — cross-country season in college, up next.

Go to: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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