I recently spoke with the Concord Academy cross-country team at the invitation of their coach Jon Waldron, a fellow CSU member. Tyler Andrews, 25 years old and a 2:16 qualifier for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials and world record holder in the half marathon on a treadmill (1:03 at the 2015 Boston Marathon expo) also spoke. Jon was looking to have us convey our respective experiences of how we developed as runners, both emerging from rather modest beginnings. He felt by having runners at the opposite ends of the age spectrum, his team might take away that competitive running continues well after high school. Also for them to keep the long view and not be discouraged if they aren’t setting records now.
Tyler, a graduate of Concord Academy, emphasized the importance of process and focus on improvement. And that multiple layers of improvement will reveal one’s true potential. Tyler was fortunate to begin finding his stride as a senior in high school. Jon played and continues to play an important mentoring role but Tyler’s uncommon dedication and commitment following graduation has allowed him to rise to elite level in college and beyond.
I spoke about the early days of running – few shoe choices, no road races, no women’s team for track or XC (pre-Title IX.) I attended a 2,000 student suburban high school in Ohio with a XC coach who paid little attention to those below top echelon. I had no idea about how to train and there was no Internet to find resources. My athletic dream was to be a sprinter but the hard truth was I didn’t have the fast-twitch fibers to pull it off and in track was relegated to JV events. In XC, I always went out too fast and died. As it was, I didn’t discover a yen or ability in distance running until I was 29.
After the talk I thought about what I could have said, perhaps at a more personal level that might have been both more interesting and relevant to the conversation. The rest of story is the coach never took me aside and asked what I was thinking by going out fast and what was happening when I died. If he had, I don’t know how much I would have said (this was the 60’s when you were supposed to suck it up!) but the reason I went out fast was because I had a desire to be fast – good motivation if tempered and harnessed — and the two reasons I died was because I had (and have!) a low pain tolerance and an inherent fear of suffocation, related to being claustrophobic. When it began to hurt and I got out of breath I slowed to stay within my comfort zone. So I left high school not having addressed these issues and had little reason to believe I would or could.
But something happened when I moved to Denver to work as a CPA – a pretty stressful job especially during tax season. To counter this I began going to the YMCA next door at lunch to run on the 24 laps/mile track – the direction changed every 30 minutes! At first, I was pushing to run 8:00 minute miles but gradually got down to 7:30 then 7:15 before hitting my limits. I’d run a mile, then jog for a while, then run another mile. A couple months later, I met some runners who were racing 5Ks and 10Ks most weekends. It was the beginning of the running boom and races were sprouting up everywhere. I joined the Rocky Mountain Road Runners and loved the camaraderie and support – and having both men and women at races! I confided in one of the top runners about my breathing issues and lack of pain tolerance. He suggested running negative splits. So I started doing that – running the first half 15-20 seconds/mi slower than my desired average time and then picking it up towards the end. Two things started to happen: One, I enjoyed the racing! And second, by feeling well within my limits for the first half and then progressively increasing, I still had some kick at the end and for that short while could tolerate the discomfort. I was intrigued to find the more I raced, the lesser the split gap became and the longer out from the finish I could pick it up and kick. I began to think: “I can do this!.” The short of it is that after 2+ years I worked my way to below 6:00 average race pace for 10Ks, was running even splits, placed well in the races AND, most surprising to me, for the first in my life became comfortable with being out of breath and hurting. As I continued to race and then moved to sea level in New England, my times inched downward, topping out at about 5:30 pace for 10Ks and 5:45 for the half marathon, times I was able to hold until my mid 40’s. Over the past 20 years, I’ve slowed but not near as much as the tables suggest should happen or as much as many in my cohort.
So for me it took a while to find my stride and in doing so allowed me to move through deep-seated phobias. I’m still claustrophobic, but I find the joy in pushing my running limits supersedes my fears.
That’s my story. It’s a more personal blog post than any other I have written. But maybe it will hit home for some. Others have stories about how running turned their lives around, perhaps overcoming weight and self-image issues and depression to name a few. This is what makes running so totally fascinating – it opens doors and windows that enrich our lives and bring us in contact with a whole community of others also finding their stride, in their own time and way.