I am out again on the dirt roads, outside the hometown where I used to live decades ago, this time to the southwest of town, on a training run with the renowned ultrarunner Jim Walmsley. He is passing through the Midwestern plains and farm country here on his way across the country somewhere.
There are things about Walmsley I feel a kinship with that have led me to take an interest in him, and to follow the ups and downs of his career. But more than that, he is a wonder to behold in action: The loping, mesmerizing stride of a gazelle possessed by no other in ultrarunning. The superb, technically accurate footing of a mountain goat dancing effortlessly across minefields of scattered rock. Relaxed abandon fused with a relentless drive. A masterful grace evident in his easy handling of the most challenging trails. The agile coordination rounding hairpin-tight switchbacks. His confident facility breezing down twisting paths atop sheer canyon drop-offs.
And beyond that, there is the subliminal joy exhibited in the lilt of his limbs running even on the most prosaic terrain. Which is where we are presently, now that he has shown up on my turf for a run, unexpectedly, in a dream.
A locked-up track in the far corner of a public middle school’s grounds, going to waste. A fence-climbing 60-year-old runner who doesn’t realize his age. A long-overdue interval workout waiting to be performed, in need of just such an overlooked venue. Result: An affair between man and 400-meter oval.
It is winter in early February here on the windy Great Plains, and the last several weeks have been fierce, at least for running. Temperatures have turned unseasonably cold for long stretches, sprinkled with only a few warmer days to squeeze in key workouts — those either faster or longer.
To add to the difficulty, because of unfortunate coincidences recently, nearly two months have elapsed since my last track interval workout. Two consecutive respiratory colds of two weeks each, something that had never happened to me before, along with the harsh and unpredictable weather, have meant that for an entire month I have done only easy shorter or mid-distance runs for workouts while dealing with the sniffles, sneezing, congestion, and coughing.
Something that surprises most people is that continuing to run through respiratory sickness actually makes me feel better in most cases and weather things with less trouble. Still, beyond an easy pace and middling distance, it’s best to hold plenty in reserve and not risk overdoing during such periods.
A few times, energy level and lungs permitting, I’ve thrown in some 4 x 100m strides (that is, four very fast repeats of 100 meters each, just shy of a sprint) or 4 x 150m hill repeats here and there to try and keep the fires of speedier pace stoked a bit, but it hasn’t been much. Not enough to maintain the fitness level and more honed “edge” I seek, and that makes the training process as rewarding and enjoyable as it can and should be.
An opportunity to connect with former university track and cross-country teammates from long ago does not go quite as hoped.
Names and a few identifying details have been changed out of respect for anonymity and personal privacy.
A white envelope
The envelope arrived in the mail unexpectedly one day this past summer. White and of regular correspondence size, with a computer-printed appearance of the type that suggested a mass-mailing, it appeared at first to be just another piece of junk mail.
With the flick of an eye, I glanced cursorily at the return name and address, which in part bore the acronym of my university alma mater. Probably another request to donate funds I did not have, I supposed. A plea from university boosters appealing to fellow former attendees now presumed to be economically prosperous.
A further glance, however, showed this normally on-target snap-judgment to be in error. I saw that the return address held the name of the man who had been coach of the university cross-country team for which I had competed my freshman year. On the line directly underneath his name were the words “XYU Track and Field Reunion.” And on the line beneath that, “Such-and-Such Place Assisted Living.”
This suggested something more worthy. While I had not cared that much for the coach, the lines on the envelope provided the telltale synopsis: An accomplished man now more frail, winding down his final years of life. Many former athletes whom he had coached, also aging, who had not seen him, or each other, for decades. A chance to get together, pay tribute, and catch up and relive old times with former teammates. And, perhaps, an opportunity to rekindle previous acquaintances, and see where things might lead.
And now, the conclusion of our “Strava: The Awful Truth” rant (in so many words), wherein we wrap up our examination of the less-remarked-upon but often revealing aspects of participation in the popular social-media platform for endurance athletes.
Many runners who compete at the local level don’t follow any structured workout plan
This may be one of the more surprising things I found on Strava. I grew up as a competitive runner starting at age 14, and was immersed from day one in the debates about easy runs and long runs vs. interval work vs. tempo and threshold runs vs. VO2max work, or whether to follow an overall plan of higher-mileage/lower-intensity vs. lower-mileage/higher-intensity, and so forth.
No matter where you stood on these issues, if you knew anything at all, you followed a training program that incorporated at least some kind of planned approach. Even if you didn’t or couldn’t follow the plan consistently, or “went by feel” when deciding whether it might be better on any given day to substitute a different type of workout for what you might have originally planned, you usually tried to get in a certain number of faster miles vs. slower miles, a certain amount of tempo or interval work, and so forth. It might have been more of a loose plan or template rather than a set or scheduled one, but when you looked at examples of training programs, the details tended to reflect one approach or another.
What has surprised me on Strava (well, somewhat) is how little rhyme or reason there is to most runners’ approaches to training, at least if you assume the majority of runners on Strava are more competitive types. It isn’t clear to me whether many just run entirely by feel, whatever that’s supposed to mean in terms of what types of workouts might be performed when, or if they truly don’t have much conception of how or why they might want to structure their training in a certain way in the first place.
After having ripped at length on Strava’s “kudosing” silliness in Part 1, we turn now to the intriguing, odd, sometimes matter-of-fact, and occasionally mystifying things one can discover looking at other runners’ activities on Strava.
A confession to make here: I am one of those guys who likes to go around turning over rocks, looking at the underside of things, just to see what there is to see wriggling around in typically unobserved places. Mainly because I find that the more of reality one can be aware of — whatever that encompasses in its various aspects — the more meaningful and understandable it is, and the richer the experience. And, sometimes, the more power and control the added insight gives you in working with it.
For my money, it’s not what you see on the surface of things, up on top in the light of day, that’s the most interesting. What’s more fascinating is what you don’t necessarily notice at first: the things hidden in shadow that come to light only later once you’ve managed to flip that rock upside down.
This applies equally both to the mechanical side of things and the psychological. If you’re a guy at least, for most of us there is always a certain fascination with what makes things function as far as the nitty-gritty “nuts and bolts” of it.
But even more fascinating, for me anyway, is the psychological underbelly. Why? Because what’s up on the surface is often just what people want you to see or, alternatively, perhaps only what they are conscious of communicating, which doesn’t necessarily jibe with what’s actually going on underneath. And any discrepancy between the two usually tells you a lot.
Think that the most interesting things about Strava are the cool maps, graphs, and charts of your own and other athletes’ running, biking, and swimming workouts? Nope, not for me. What I have found more intriguing are all the things you eventually notice by reading “between the lines” that no one seems to talk about.
Part 1 here gives the backstory about how I got involved with Strava in the first place, and also looks at what I consider the “Kudos trap” — kudosing being similar to liking someone on Facebook — that one can get sucked into there. (Yep, as usual, Wardolfski gets sidetracked composing what was intended to be a fairly brief intro, but then it really gets away from him.) The things I’ve learned from following other runners are covered in Parts 2and 3.
Social media is not something I’ve ever been much interested in participating in, with rare exceptions. At least not Facebook or Twitter, both of which strike me as high school all over again. Not to mention that both are also just a cacophony of poor web design and poor usability — they’re frustrating to wade through and simply ugly to look at. I do understand that for certain groups of people or organizations or families, Facebook serves as the main clearinghouse for information, and can be valuable.
But for me, none of that applies. I tend not to be a joiner, if for no other reason than just because I don’t like the peer pressure, even if subtle, to behave a certain way that tends to come with participating in most groups.
Also, in groups, behavior tends to come down to the lowest common denominator, so things degenerate into either: (a) online flame- or slag-fests, or (b) the opposite, a bunch of meaningless Kumbaya or Pollyanna praise to whomever or whatever, or failing those, (c) people trying to top each other with clever one-liners, or (d) the feed gets polluted with too many jerks promoting either themselves or their wares. Or, (e) most common of all, the comments are just plain mundane, vapid, and uninteresting the majority of the time — a huge waste of attention span.
My response to all that is usually: No thanks. I’d rather go my own way in my own independent fashion. And then with Facebook, there are the privacy issues, which we needn’t get into here.
That said, I do have a fake Facebook account so that when needed I can log in anonymously to obtain needed info posted by someone there, but generally don’t bother with it other than that. I also signed up for a Twitter account a few years ago in an aborted attempt to try and help promote my self-employed work, but after a few tweets, the account has sat there silently since.
Once in a great while, though, I’ll make an exception for some online group or forum, if there’s enough meaningful “meat” to it to pull me in without too many of the above-mentioned cons. One of the online communities that has meant something to me has been Strava, the popular workout-logging and social-media site for endurance athletes — though perhaps not for the usual reasons many Strava users join, as it turns out.
On the comeback trail in my late fifties after over two decades of running primarily for fitness, I discovered that the phenomenon of “hobby joggers” had significantly changed the road-racing scene. It was good that more people had found running, but couldn’t they have done so without crashing the party?
Last fall, I was scratching my head after years away from competition, trying to find a road-running race where I would have decent room to run without literally getting tripped up. Sometimes race-event publicity and sign-up websites would proudly report the size of the event and how many participants finished the previous year’s race. Presumably they felt that this demonstration their race was a cool, super-duper “happening thing” would be a draw.
Most, however, did not mention the number, likely because they just didn’t think to do so, of course. I also wondered, though, if perhaps a few of the race directors or sponsors of these races might not want to broadcast how large their events had become for fear of appearing they had simply become too big, unwieldy, and crowded.
Because with too many entrants in a road race, logistics suffer unless the event is very well-managed: Insufficient, inconvenient, or distant parking. Delays picking up one’s registration packet and race number before the start. Lines at the toilets due to a lack of Port-A-Johns (and perhaps having to go find a tree quite some way off to pee behind). Faster runners getting stuck behind self-important but slower runners who have crowded their way to the front of the starting line where they don’t belong. And so forth.
Here’s the ironic thing. The races that come with the most troubles are exactly the ones that cost the most and are loaded down with the most crap: The useless participation medals just for finishing. The doughy, white-bread crowds pulled in by such trinkets. The unneeded water stations in short races like 5Ks. The gaudy carnival atmosphere with local radio personalities or other clowns polluting the soundscape with jangling, overamplified noise and pushing other foofaraw on everyone.
This past fall I got my feet wet running a few local road races again after many years away. In the process, I had to deal for the first time with the incursion of so-called hobby joggers that has affected the road-racing scene nationwide since the time I last competed. Here is my report.
It is one of my first 5K races in almost 25 years, and I am now not much more than a quarter of a mile past the one-mile mark on a beautiful course that runs along the largest river in our state. It is an absolutely perfect fall morning for a race: 57 degrees, crisp air, a cheerful sun, and little to no wind or humidity. Cool enough to not overheat, but not so cool that my muscles might tighten up competing in the brief split-side shorts and T-shirt I am wearing.
At 59 years old, I am still feeling my way back from the long absence from racing. This current race effort is purposely more intense than my first couple of testing-the-waters forays the previous month, and I am beginning to feel and remember what a real competitive attempt is like again.
Flirting with the limit of my current fitness, I am pushing hard but consciously holding back a bit to avoid going over the edge so I don’t crash and burn. And also because I’m still not quite sure where that edge really is, or exactly what it feels like — or used to feel like — after such a long time away.
I don’t want to risk running on the “red line” just yet. I’m getting closer to that day, but it can wait till next spring. After the two earlier fall races run well shy of my capability, this one is a time trial to wrap things up for the season and assess my true fitness level so I can determine a few key paces to target in training this winter. So while I’m enjoying grappling with the challenge, I don’t want to spoil things by potentially overreaching and nosing over into a painfully drawn-out tailspin for the latter half of the race.
A first encounter with the species
Not far ahead of me is a younger, tallish, somewhat overweight (at least for a runner), probably early-thirty-something man who is laboring heavily. It is a level of fatigue he should not be experiencing until the very last half-mile of the race, had he been pacing himself properly. He appeared in my sights a couple of hundred yards back, and I have slowly been closing in on him. But now, crossing over a bridge spanning the river on the route, with every stride the gap is visibly diminishing.
Continuing our look at the training approach of Tom “Tinman” Schwartz, and its clarifying, rejuvenating effect in motivating my return to racing after many years away.
Be sure to check out the Tom Schwartz training info links at the bottom of Part 2 here, which point to articles, podcasts, and videos exploring his approach in more depth. If you find yourself drawn to train the “Tinman” way, don’t overlook the very helpful training calculator tool on his coaching site that’s linked to below as well.
The art of “Tinman” training: putting the pieces together
Other than perhaps his take on “CV” intervals that purposely target Type IIa fast-intermediate muscle fibers to significantly increase their endurance (covered in Part 1), Tom Schwartz isn’t promoting anything completely new, of course. But then again, no one can really claim that mantle.
Most competent coaches and training systems these days incorporate multi-pace training year-round now, for example, varying the mix depending on the season. But the way Schwartz balances all the different elements is, if not unique, rare these days, and he consistently offers interesting, outside-the-box insights you tend not to find elsewhere, as well as simple, practical ways to apply them to training. And his deep knowledge of the history of training systems, his extensive education and training in exercise physiology, 25+ years of coaching experience commencing very early as an undergrad, and holistic grasp of how everything works together in concert — or should — is unparalleled.
Here are a few high points and key takeaways, to expand a bit on what was covered in Part 1.
VO2max intervals: easy does it. Schwartz does employ VO2max intervals as part of the overall system, but carefully and judiciously, specifically eschewing too many of them, at least by prevailing standards, even during the peak season. They are done less frequently, over shorter distances, and in significantly less volume per workout than insisted on by most coaches. This runs very much counter to the “conventional wisdom” these days.
But Schwartz has found through experience that most distance runners do not need much of this type of training to perform at a peak. A little goes a long way, and it is easy to overdo and burn athletes out. And besides, races themselves in the 1500m to 5000m range hit the body’s VO2max physiology hard as it is. Depending on how often an athlete races during the season, little additional VO2max-specific training may be needed beyond racing itself.
Years down the road, with new motivation after a long hiatus from racing, I am finally taking the opportunity to try making a little hay from lessons I began learning about training long ago. Only recently have those lessons finally sunk in enough to make a difference.
This two-part posting includes my selection of “best of Tom (Tinman) Schwartz” links at the end of Part 2. These point to articles, interviews, podcasts, and videos covering his views on training, plus Schwartz’s handy online training calculator for targeting specific training paces based on a current race performance.
It’s curious how life will sometimes toss a bone your way. In some cases it turns out to be just a dry bone lacking in marrow, and is better passed over. Other times, though, you gnaw on it a little, hesitantly at first, a bit distractedly, and then find, perhaps despite yourself, your appetite is whetted. Then with a little more nibbling and tentative chewing, the juices begin to flow.
What you might have viewed at first as something not really worth the extra bother, you begin to embrace. Then as time passes, you find yourself pursuing it with an extra enthusiasm you had tabled or forgotten. And you outstrip the original idea and begin taking it further than originally intended.
This happened for me recently when the idea of running a local 5K road race together “just for fun” was suggested by a running friend of mine. For a dozen years, I had been content to run a couple of days a week for fitness and general enjoyment, because I had always loved running and training just for their own sake. In earlier years, I had been involved in high-level competition — for several years in high school and college, and for another period in my mid-30s — but thought that “fire” had been burned through already. I did not anticipate ever competing again.