Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The perfect (lack of a) storm, part two

Yesterday, I tried to begin answering the question, "What elements create the ideal training situation for a serious distance runner?" I stated a few obvious facts, chief among them the idea different people thrive in different environments. But I also suggested, without exploring the idea further, that a lot of runners wind up in what proves to be the optimal training and racing set-up without planning it. I'll now shore up this claim with some real and hypothetical examples.

First, the runners I'm talking about here are adults flying solo -- including those who belong to formal clubs or informal groups -- not younger people on high-school or college teams or socked away in a funded, professional training bands.

A consequence of this absence of focused or comprehensive planning is that runners can land in great situations without even knowing it until the schemes are well underway or even over. That is, you might one day look back on the best period of training and racing of your life and realize that it was the result of a lot of hard work but that this work was catalyzed by things you played no conscious role in.

One example is suddenly having a lot more free time, often with little to no warning. This could come about as a result of being laid off or going through a fast-tracked divorce or break-up (or if you're really special, both at the same time). It may also enter the picture for more benign reasons, such as seeing your youngest kid leave for college, giving you a couple of hours a the day you haven't had free in, well, 18 years. About 15 years ago I knew a guy who was laid off and went from being merely decent on the New England road-racing scene to reaching the Olympic Trials at an unusually advanced age.

I can cite a variety of similar examples, but also offer the caveat that unless you have the luxury of not having to find a job immediately after losing one, finding yourself unemployed is typically no picnic. The same thing goes for being suddenly single. Things that leave people with more time to train often come packaged with the sort of stress that doesn't engender a psychological environment well-suited for hard training and top performance -- for most people, the idea of transforming adversity into superior athletic performance is a romantic myth. There's a difference between coping with stress by exercising a lot and being able to race well when other things are in the toilet. Some people are capable of the latter, but I suspect these types are comparatively rare.

At this point, you might say, well, if unplanned free time is (or can be) great for your competitive running, how is planned free time not even better? How do the aforementioned situations functionally differ from taking planned breaks from work or school or some other obligation?

That's easy. When you systematically put all of your eggs into a training basket, this almost invariably creates a level of psychological pressure most runners would find detrimental. If things don't work out the way you want them too racing-wise, you'll feel like you failed, especially if someone or something has helped subsidize the effort.

Lastly, when I said yesterday that runners' windows for maximally thriving tend to be narrow, I wasn't talking about an age window or anything so mundane. I was alluding to the manner in which things sometimes stack up in people's worlds in a most welcome but ephemeral way, and how basic statistical principles dictate that they can only stay that way for a brief time frame.

For example, let's say you're one of those unfortunates who gets canned from a job. You don't have to worry about rent because you can live with mom and dad or crash with a friend. You look into coaching for the first time, and when you hire one she turns out to be great and doesn't expect you to pay her. You're away from a lot of the influences that held you back in the past (e.g., drinking buddies and others who aren't exactly advocates of your comparatively monastic lifestyle). You've recently left a banal relationship and found one with a partner supportive of your athletic goals. You're on a roll in a variety of areas and your juju has never been more on the uptick. Accordingly, you look forward to even the hardest workouts and your racing moves from acceptable to sublime (by whatever standards apply).

No one factor I just mentioned is remarkable or even unusual. But how often do so many of them occur in concert, and when they do, how long does the mix tend to persist undisturbed? In my personal and observational experience, maybe a few months to a year, tops. Before long, the pink-cloud phase of the new relationship wears off,and it turns out your mate likes you better when you smoke weed with him every night. Or your parents suddenly start charging you rent or otherwise won't host you for nothing anymore. Or your coach takes a high-school or college job and doesn't have time for you anymore, and it turns out you've been leaning in her far more strongly than you knew or could admit. And just like that, depending on your fundamental resilience, your running is no longer riding the crest of an improbably high wave. It doesn't mean your training and racing have been dashed against the rocks and that your best days are automatically in the past, but it does mean that you need to reflect soberly on the things that carried you to your peak times and ask what needs to be done to replicate that existence, inasmuch as you are to in the first place.

I was moved to write this because I am in a great situation -- I think -- for running well, in the context of being a beat-up old guy. I have a job that is sometimes frustrating, but in a way that I can almost welcome because I feel better for overcoming the challenges it offers, and I can do it at any time of day save for the occasions I have things thrown at me at the last minute. I am physically healthy after an unruly and downright odd (cellulitis? Really?) second half of 2016. I have a great sweetie in my life and a core group of friends both in Colorado and elsewhere that are unconditionally in my corner and want to see me thrive as not just a runner but as a person; I've seen these folks through some rough times and conversely and I would not trade this sextet or octet of hominids for any other.

If I don't turn in some good races in 2017, it will almost certainly be because I don't try very hard, not because I lack the opportunity.

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