Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Orb

John L. Parker first coined the the term "Orb" in reference to the little ball of energy floating inside our heads before races in his classic, Once a Runner. The Orb needs to be handled very carefully. It is nuclear; while it carries enough power to propel us to tremendous feats, a small leak will poison us almost imperceptibly at first and a major breach will cause the all too familiar explosion we have seen when the favorite limps home in last place. When this happens, coach, athlete and teammates reevaluate training, diet, and a plethora of other factors without examining the health of the orb.

Parker's genius is that he never really describes the orb. He references it. If you have not had an orb experience, you will have a lot of gaps to fill in. If you know the orb, his keywords are all you need. I'm not sure how to explain the orb to non runners. I can get close. All of the adrenaline and mental energy that bring some people to tears, that basically quantify a panic attack, can be harnessed for strength, for power, for speed. It needs to be caged somewhere inside you, your head, your heart, your soul until it's time to break it open and unleash its power. Earlier in the book Parker speaks of demons - which are basically the reasons we choose to do a sport as counter-intuitive as running - and these demons are what we keep inside the orb until the time is right. Like all demons, if not properly caged, they cause all sorts of damage. They will eat you up from within. That's about as close as I can get. If you have been there, you see it, if not, you probably think you do but no, that's not it. 

One of the most sure fire ways to spot someone who has no idea what the orb is or how to use it is to see someone too overtly going through the motions of the psych-up. Ayn Rand once wrote, "Those who speak of love most promiscuously are the ones who've never felt it. " The same is true with the orb and undoubtedly most powerful emotions that take a bizarre combination of passion and patience. I have found that what most people call love is a weak combination of impulses and that is exactly what I see with the orb. The orb is not frenetic, chaotic, false confidence. The more conspicuous the intensity of the person, the less I fear them as a competitor and the more I fear for them as a coach. As the saying goes,  "it's always the quiet ones."

I mentioned before that I felt running as a sport was counter-intuitive. To be more specific, I consider it unnatural. Our bodies are built with a flight or fight response. Running brings two contradictions to our nature. First of all, the response is fight or flight. Not just flight. Always choosing to run is far more socially acceptable but not natural. Furthermore, the flight response is not meant to be trained. As runners, we need to be prepared on race day so we hammer out long runs, tempo runs, intervals and sprints but training is not natural, even if it is effective. From the standpoint of the central nervous system, the more intensely we train, the more we "cry wolf" and the less of a chance we will have our orb prepared on race day. We need to keep this in mind as we train. Physiology doesn't stop with the heart and lungs and muscles. The central nervous system, which controls our mental and emotional health, is itself a physiological process and perhaps the most important one. A healthy CNS is necessary to having a healthy, productive orb.

So how do they do it? What is the secret of the 'big meet performers?" Why do some runners just seem to always be ready on race day? They have mastered the orb. They have perspective. Energy is energy. We can make it positive or negative. We can let it drain us or power us. Energy is neutral. We decide how it affects us. Those who understand the orb understand how to control energy. Nerves, adrenaline, butterflies, whatever you call it. It's all the same source. The trick is to keep it neutral for as long as possible. You can acknowledge it but don't try to tap it until 1) you understand how to use it and 2) it's time. Understanding it is important because it's better to be completely indifferent than to let nerves eat away at you. I learned this from public speaking. I have found the best way to approach a speech is to act like I'm not giving it for as long as possible, even while I'm giving the speech. I don't need energy to speak though so option number two is to use the energy when the time is right when I race. By allowing yourself to feel the nerves, the butterflies, the adrenaline and then smile, and knowing that they are power, and just letting them sit in a special room inside you until the gun sounds, you will have that power during the race.

To just beat cliches to death in this piece, with great power comes great responsibility. If you have properly channeled your energy and gotten the most out of your orb, the first portion of your race will feel way too easy. Here come those demons back to haunt you again. The effort of a five minute mile in training will give you a 4:50 in a race. You need to be disciplined enough to reign those demons in and run that five flat and not use the power of your orb in the first half of your race. You need to know your pace, to run it, and then when the pain sets in, when the faces of your competitors take on that worried expression shortly before it's a full blown grimace, that's when you let the demons loose. Now is when you need the effort to keep steady at five minute miles, or whatever. Now the orb is giving you the stored energy. Before the race it would have been a meltdown if you had opened it up. At the start you would have been just another random body up front before the real racing started. But once everyone else has played their aces, the real runners take over. They are just starting to break their orbs. They have that same confusing blend of focused indifference to their countenance that they had before the race. First or last, world champion or running for the last varsity spot, you want to be that runner. 

Focused indifference. Think about that. Obviously you cannot be indifferent towards your race if you want to do well but you need to copy as many facets of indifference as possible to keep your CNS healthy and strong. You need to care about doing well but not care about what it's going to take to meet your goals. Caring about what it will take will not help you. You need to be prepared for it and then dismiss it. The focus is what keeps you ready to go, the indifference protects you. It is a quiet intensity you master. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is braver five minutes longer." On the starting line, everyone is a champion. Everyone is about to run the best race of their lives.  At that moment, all runners are equal. In Emerson's proverbial five minutes, that is when the heroes come out. That is when champions are identified. Who is brave, who is tough, who is focused, who is intense at the halfway mark?

While I didn't appreciate the modern day movie, when I look back at the 1970s series "The Incredible Hulk" I think of the orb. I think of that ordinary guy who just needs the right catalyst to become a seven foot, two hundred fifty pound, raging ball of insanity. The scientist who became the hulk always tried to find the formula that would allow him to control that catalyst. When I have watched some of my favorite runners make their move, I see the marriage of the two. I see the intelligent, mild mannered, stoic facade while their eyes are ferocious representations of what their legs are about to do. Where is the orb? I don't know but wherever it is it is reflected in those eyes.

I once stood on the side of a cross country course with an opposing coach speaking of how I hadn't seen that look since the previous season in the eyes of one of the girls I coached. As the lead pack passed through the first mile, I looked at her, then looked him and said, "That's the look, sorry coach, race is over." He laughed at me indignantly and said there was no way I could call the race at the mile based on her "look." Two miles later she came flying down the hill about fifty yards up on his girl.  That's the orb. I've seen people with that look lose, too. But they lost by a few yards to guys they were supposed to lose to by hundreds of yards.  

The Orb! It's Pandora's Box, the Forbidden Fruit, the Wings of Icarus. It is every majestic, powerful, dangerous, apocalyptic myth we have. Control it and you are as close to immortal as you will ever be. One false move, of disrespect, of conceit, of bravado, and you are banished from the garden and melted by the sun. Or at least it will feel that way.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hiatus (concerning Whigs, Tories, short shorts and burn out)

I have mentioned before my love for not only running but running as an avenue to racing faster. Racing faster than others and racing faster than I have run before. It used to be faster than I had ever run before but now it's run faster than I have run recently. That last qualification hindered my motivation a little but once I wrapped my head around it, I was able to put in some good training and enjoy it. When, last spring, I ran 32:51 for a track 10k it was almost three minutes slower than my personal best but I still came away very satisfied as I had not broken 33 in several years. Still, it's just a little tougher to get out the door, especially for hard workouts when I know my best racing is behind me. I think I finally see on the horizon what people have been telling me for thirty years awaited me. "Burnout." In spite of racing scores of times every year from the age of ten - possibly before, my first running log was at ten - I never had the desire to give up the sport.

When I look at what kept me in the sport, it turned out, ironically, to be what people said would make me burn out. Running too much would burn me out. Well, I was running a handful of 40 mile weeks at ten, 60 mile weeks at sixteen, over 100 by twenty. Funny thing is those miles produced results and I'm a results oriented guy. The more I improved, the more I wanted to do what it took to improve more. Therefore, running miles never burned me out, they made me hungry for more because all those kids who beat me at ten who were afraid of running a lot of miles were now in my rearview. Of course we can't forget about racing. Racing too much would certainly burn me out. Well, like I said, from the age of nine I was racing at least 40 times per year and when I finally got old enough to drive myself to races, there were weeks where I raced four or five days. I would go to my high school championship meet (CIF Finals for those from California) on Saturday and then find a road race the next day. Racing did the exact opposite though. Racing kept me motivated. If you told me there would be months between races I would lose the desire to train. Racing, and winning, and improving, and meeting new people at races, kept me heading out the door each day. And since I never really liked training in and of itself, racing was a great way to get in some training and actually enjoy it.

But thirty years after first being warned of the dreaded burnout, I started to feel it. Why? Well, it the best season of my latter years actually was a curse in disguise. I had great training, raced three recent personal bests in a matter of weeks and an absoulute personal best in the marathon and when I looked to dig deeper for even better times I got hurt. That told me that I might have hit my limit. 4:44, 15:58, 32:51 and 2:38:00 might be as good as I ever got. When I started my comeback from the injury, the times came slowly, very slowly. I was not down with that. I was making much better progress with my lifting. I was lifting more than I ever had in my life, not recently, in my LIFE. For a guy addicted to improvement, that was looking a little more attractive. But still, at my absolute best I am mediocre at lifting while I can still win races while pretty out of shape. So there was still the hunger to excel vis a vis my fellow runners. And this brings us to the straw that broke the camel's back. (I'm not sure exactly where this expression originates but I think it's a pretty messed up game seeing at what point a camel can no longer handle the weight of straw to the point of death. How much straw would that have to be anyways? Camels are pretty tough and straw is pretty light.) But I digress.

I  was headed to a Monday All comers Meet towards the end of the summer and it was a less than stellar day. It was not raining but it had been earlier and there were clouds and a pretty solid wind. Now  this is anomalous in the Northwest only in the summer and this day was reminiscent of about 300 days per year but for some reason this was far too bad a day for most of the usual  All Comers participants. A meet that usually draws hundreds only brought out a brave few. This killed me. My kindred spirits, one of the things I have always loved about the sport, were not so kindred after all. They were, in the words of Thomas Paine "Sunshine Patriots." They were Tories! And this is where I once again segue into a tangent barely related to my essay. Paine later wrote in The Crisis, "I should not be afraid to go with a hundred Whigs against a thousand Tories." I have always felt this way about almost anything in life. Those who feel safety in numbers underestimate those who have no such insecurities. I would rather coach a team of ten dedicated athletes (Whigs) then a hundred who need to be catered to and have the sport watered down for them (Tories). This is why I used to show up to the first day of track practice, look into the stands at the roughly hundred kids there and say "There are too many of you here. Not all of you want to compete in the sport of track and field. But that's ok. This week you'll learn that lesson and we'll lose about 15-20 by the time the season starts and those are the kids that want to be in this sport, and those are the kids I want to coach."

The fuse had been lit to the flame that would burn me out. The meet was an hour ahead of schedule due to the emaciated numbers. I paced one of my runners to a record in her age group and got ready to go home. I saw a fellow runner show up for the meet, thinking he had time to warm up for his race, which had already been run. The meet was over. He did a quick warm up and attempted a time trial by himself anyway. It went badly but at least he gave it a shot. I felt bad for him. I felt bad for the sport. This was not a representation of the sport I loved. The football players would have shown up. The soccer players would have shown up. I hate it when running gives other sports reason to consider it a "minor" sport. On this day it was true though. I had no connection with 90% of the "summer soldier" runners in my town. That was the beginning of the end. There is a certain fellowship with runners. I feel it reading the running journals of friends and kids I have coached. but on this day I realized I needed more fellowship than that. I needed more fellowship than a handful of people who showed up when hundreds didn't. I didn't want to assimilate with the running culture that was around me. I'd rather go lift. I'd rather go read or write, but not about running. I needed a break. At long last, I was burnt out.

I held on for another couple weeks with half-hearted enthusiasm but I was just phoning it in. It was time to focus on other things for awhile. The good news is that while my own personal running was suffering, I happened to coach a bunch of "Whigs" that just kept coming back for more and improving and winning and while I understood we were truly a sub-culture, it was enough to at least keep my heart in the sport to some degree even if my body was leaving for a spell. Aside from that crew, however, I did not feel like I was a part of the running culture around me and withdrew.  Would I ever return? I wasn't sure. I have taken a few respites from serious training before but it was always part of a plan that included coming back when I was ready. This was the first time I had no desire to start training again. While I know I will always go tun a few miles per week for health and fitness reasons, I felt this could be the end of training for performance.

It seems fitting that racing, which the fear mongering alarmists told me would lead to an early burn out, would not only fail to burn me out, but bring back my motivation to run seriously again. As I headed to Whidbey Island to coach the youth team I work with, I did so in full sweats and had no intention of running any more than from one coaching vantage point to another. When we arrived, we witnessed one of the best cross country courses I have ever seen. A golf course with rolling hills, tight turns, a view of the ocean and just enough wind to make you realize you needed to follow someone if possible. I watched the races and the strategy kids were using and I started to get the feeling back. By the time my last group kids went - a group of 12 and 13 year old girls that swept the meet and broke the individual and team course records - I had IT back. I wanted to to do what they did. I wanted to race that course. I wanted to plan my strategy, to tuck in on the windy stretches, to test my opponent on the uphills, to surge the downhills. I wanted to race. Fortunately I always have a pair of spikes in the car and even more fortunately the shorts we bought the team were too big so I could steal some team shorts from my daughter - she wore the spandex so the baggies were available. (Here is yet another advantage of growing up in the 1970-80s. No matter how short shorts seem, they're still longer than we ran in during that time!) A few minutes later I was in shorts and spikes and registered and ready to race. Except for one important detail.

Now I remembered why I trained. I love to race but I also like to race well and without a lot of training I was pretty sure I was about to have a problem as we toed the line. I figured that just as the wages of sin are death, the wages of not training would be a horrible death on the course at the hands of those more righteously trained and that was indeed justice so I was ready to get what I deserved. I was just happy to be on this course on this day. When the race started, the guy who I had picked to win laid back while another guy was out pretty quick. I laid back on the initial hill and let my legs go on the downside and found myself on the back of the leader. What a pleasant surprise! I knew, however, how quickly things go south when you're not fit, however. I stayed tucked for the first 2400 meters of the 4k course until the long uphill when I sensed the leader slowing more than I thought necessary. i didn't exactly make a move but I just kept the even effort going and felt myself pulling away. Pretty cool! I stayed strong for the rest of the race and won by eight seconds. The time off had done a number on my fitness but I was hungry again. I ran for almost two hours the next day. I look forward to setting goals and training again. I woke up at five am to watch the Chicago marathon. I have had my hiatus. I don't know if I will ever PR again, or even run faster than I did last year. But I look forward to throwing myself at it again... and besides, there's always the last refuge of the runner who realizes he is just too darn slow... the ULTRA. Chuckanut 50k 2012 baby!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Joy of Running (or not)

One of my greatest challenges in coaching came in the realization that many kids join cross country and track because they love the act of running in and of itself - not the sport of racing. It seems odd to me now that I never really considered that a realistic possibility. I knew that there were people out there who loved to run but didn't like to race but I always assumed they'd know better than to actual join teams in which racing was the objective. I mean, just because I like to sing in the shower, in the car, on runs and anywhere else I'm alone doesn't mean I'm going to start clamoring for gigs when the last thing in the world I want is to sing in front of other people. I just wasn't ready the first few times I heard athletes say they wished they could just go off in the hills and run without the necessity of racing.

Of course my first response was, you can, you're just not supposed to join the team. I think part of my problem was the background I had in other sports. A football coach would never hear that while his kicker loved drilling 60 yard field goals all day in practice, he really didn't want to do it in a game. Neither would a basketball coach see a kid spend an hour a day hitting 90% from the free throw line and then have him claim to hate playing games. The reason we spend all that time practicing other sports is to excel in the game itself. Football and basketball practices are hell for the most part. The only reason I did them was to get better to be a better competitor. This is the same way I felt about running. On almost every run I've been on, I can think of several things I'd rather be doing than running. I cannot think of anything I'd rather be doing than preparing myself for a great race, however. I simply didn't - and do be honest still don't - understand the mindset of going out for a sport when you don't like the sport itself.

I believe other sports don't have this problem because running is the only sport where the recreation has become superimposed on the sport in the media, our schools, and even in professional and championship racing. The most competitive road races in the world are simultaneously run with the jogging, charity runs. Boston and New York marathons come to mind but in another minute I could rattle off twenty more. In schools, there is the "no cut" policy and as a coach, you actually get in trouble for making competition a mandatory part of being on the team. When I watch the Olympics, in the middle of the championship schedule are the handicapped races. I have no problem with handicapped races but I have yet to see a wheelchair flag football game break out at the end of the third quarter of the Superbowl. We bombard young runners with the idea that there is little difference between elite running and casual jogging. In fact, running publications such as Runner's World and Running Times perpetuate this amalgamation to the point that elites are considered lesser souls than participant runners.

One of the first great revelations I had after reading an article in one of these rags at a very young age, was that I was not an evolved runner. The article listed a progression of enlightenment or some such garbage in which the competitor was several rungs below the well rounded, holistic, runner. Of course i read it, and said, oh well, I'm ten, maybe when i'm forty i'll be more well rounded. No such luck. I never read Pro Football digest to learn how to throw a 50 yard spiral or how the joy of throwing the ball is more important than how far or how accurate I throw, I read it to learn more about the guys that already could. I wanted to be like them and when I found out I would never be over six feet and nothing short of lots of "supplements" ending in "ol" would put me over 200 pounds I knew that football was not my sport if I wanted to be a great athlete. I never once read or had someone tell me that so long as I enjoyed playing the game, I was equal to or superior to the guys who played in the Pro Bowl. That is unique to running.

So as a sport we get the kids who hate competition. When I scratch my head as to why coaches are constantly paranoid of having world class runners race more than a handful of times each season and then see this trickle down through the colleges and to high schools where a team will deliberately lose a dual meet rather than sack up and have have some pride in what they do, I realize the root of it all. While some kids and adults come to this sport because they love competition, and they choose running as one of the purist, most basic forms of competition there is, most are here by default. They come to running because they can't or don't want to compete anywhere else. If racing is a necessary evil they will do it once or twice a season  but other than that, let's just prepare. It's no wonder so few of the naturally great athletes choose running in their youth. Why would a confident, athletic, kid, who loves to compete and loves to win choose a sport where competing is taboo and winning is irrelevant and desire to win seen as a character flaw. I keep hearing about football and basketball coaches who fear they will lose their job if they can't win. I'm pretty sure your job is in greater jeopardy if you do win as a cross country or track coach, or at least coach in such a way that promotes it.

So this is a shout out to all those who don't love the act of running in and of itself. To those who might run, but not nearly the same way they do now, if it weren't for competition. For those who have never said the act of running is better than sex. (Yes I have heard that more than once and always think one of us is doing one of those activities really, really, wrong). This is for those whom, if they found out they could win an Olympic Gold by running once a week and getting stung by bees for a minute a day the other six, would not only instantly take up that program but might actually prefer it. This is for people who love to race, to succeed, to win - and if winning is just not possible than to beat the people who beat you last week, last month, last year. If you're already winning than to be better than YOU were last week, last month, last year. This is for those whose fondest running memory is a race. We may be unevolved but that's ok, because in all honesty, what sounds cooler: Homo Sapiens or australopithecus?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


We are all familiar with affirmations. Usually, it's because we've laughed at the Saturday Night Live skit where Stuart (I think) keeps telling himself he's a good person or we've seen some other movie where people tape things to their fridge, their bathroom mirror, or some other place that tell them they deserve to succeed, they will succeed. There is even the possibility that people reading this have done some of these things. I have no idea how effective taping affirmations up in frequently seen places is but if it works, keep going. When I think of affirmations I think of more subconscious, more subliminal and yet more proactive affirmations that can make all the difference in the world to a runner. Many of these affirmations are either similar or identical to one percenters but differ in the way they manifest themselves. One percenters such as cross training, lifting weights, eating healthy, taking supplements all have the a direct physiological effect on performance. One percenters can also work on a psychological, motivational level as well, however.

You always hear the cliche that whenever you take time off, there's someone out there who isn't and they have an advantage but I'm not sure it's ever fully understood why. Sure more training probably means better fitness but there's more to it. More important than the simple fitness gained from a dark, rainy morning workout is the acknowledgement of how important this must be to have a left a warm bed a couple hours early to go do this. When race day comes, there will be two types of runners. Those who have compromised their training in order to maintain comfort and those who have sacrificed comfort in order to maintain training. Since the will to sacrifice comfort is perhaps the biggest determinant in performance, guess who will come out on top when these two types of people race.

One of the clearest examples I ever got of this is from the training log of one of my former athletes. The Monday before the National Indoor Championships, we did a workout that while on paper looked fairly tame, spiraled a bit out of control when a storm necessitated we run it on ice and snow covered undulating streets instead of the track. I thought I adjusted times to account for the change but apparently I missed my goal. The log read "Wanted to die multiple times during the workout. This better make us national champions." While my goal was not to elicit the desire for death that close to the biggest race of not only these runners' seasons, but their lives to that point, there was a  certain value to that workout far beyond the fitness it brought about. Any questions of motivation, of will, of desire to run well at Nationals were asked and answered then and there. When race weekend came around, there was no doubt as to what decisions would be made when the chips were down, when the lactic acid started flowing, when the pain set in. That workout removed all doubt from a team that probably entered the track as the only team with no doubt about themselves. it's one thing to believe you can win; it's another thing entirely to believe that, win or lose, you can endure more than anyone you are racing against. If given the choice, I'd rather affirm the latter than the former. I'd like to say that athlete brought home a national championship that weekend but as it turns out, he was the only one on our national squad who didn't. On Friday, his teammates turned in what was then the number four all time performance indoors for the distance medley and did indeed win the school's first ever national title. Every athlete in that race set a personal best, which is almost unheard of in relays. The following day, we traded out our 400 runner for James and were only able to manage third in the 4xMile. Later that year at the outdoor national championships the same team moved up a notch and placed second in what was one of the most heralded fields ever for that event. Of those three national races, our team was not once mentioned as even a potential threat for the top six and yet the team walked away with a first, a second and a third. That is the power of affirming commitment.

There are less painful ways of affirming commitment although ironically they seem to prove just as tough for many athletes to do.  In past blogs, I have mentioned the one percenters such as eating well, sleeping enough, lifting and cross training to name a few. These one percenters benefit a runner directly through better health and fitness but also indirectly in that they reaffirm the commitment the runner has made to his or her task.  All of these things affirm your sacrifice every time you choose to do them. The runner who has spent a season turning down drinks and junk food and leaving parties early faces the bad part of a race with a completely different attitude than the runner who doesn't. When it comes time to decide whether or not it's worth those couple extra seconds to push through the pain, every sacrificed hour of sleep, every denied doughnut, every decision to be the best you can be, comes back to say "Hell No! We didn't give all that up for you to punk out now!" What of the runner who never gave up anything? Well training is training and you need to be trained to give up comfort. That runner lacks that inner voice. His inner voice says, "Screw going with that guy's late race surge. Let's put a pained expression on our face, limp in and go home and grab a beer!"

Even little commitments make a difference. one of the most accurate predictors of how well an athlete will fulfill his or her potential has been the training log. It's not foolproof, but it's as close as any other trait I have identified. I present every athlete I coach with the importance of keeping an online running log. the log is for them to see their own progress but also for me to monitor workouts in retrospect and evaluate where to go from there. In spite of placing a rather dramatic emphasis on this, it amazes me how few athletes, ones that are willing to run upwards of ten hours a week, are willing to take five minutes a day to type out what they just did. More often than not, far more often than not, the runners that log in improve at a far greater rate than those who don't. it's the affirmation. That little stupid decision to type in the day's workout changes the importance of those workouts, of the whole running business, to the runner. It makes it more real. It applies at all ages. I had the pleasure of watching a twelve year old girl run an astounding 19:19 5000 meters on the track last night. The performance puts her at a level that, although she is only going into the seventh grade, she could make almost any varsity high school team in the country. there may be ten schools, give or take couple, that she couldn't walk on to the top seven right now. Well, that was impressive and her improvement has been steady throughout the eighteen months I've worked with her but that has not been her defining characteristic the last few months. What i have noticed most about her was that by the time I have driven home from practice each time, she has already logged her workout. Since I first noticed that, I have anticipated her breakthrough and I doubt last night is the end of her progression.

It's more than just about putting one foot in front of the other quickly. Distance running is a series of decisions. In training, in racing, in life, you decide whether or not racing fast is worth the inconvenience it poses. You don't just make that decision on race day. You make that decision in every workout, in every aspect of your life. Eventually you come to a point where stop making the decision. Like riding a bike or driving a manual transmission, it just become second nature, it comes naturally. You finish a great race without ever being conscious of having made the decision to push through the pain. That is the final evolution. not even knowing you are making the sacrifice any more. That is the end result of subconscious affirmations. By definition, they become subconscious. In the words of the trite advertising campaign, you don't think you "Just do it!"

Sunday, August 28, 2011


Ray Stevens once referred to streaking as "the fastest thing on two feet." While Stevens, of course, was speaking of an entirely different connotation of streaking, it brings up an interesting comparison with the objective of running multiple days in a row. As far as being the fastest thing on two feet, is streaking the way to go? I can't imagine anyone could honestly answer this question yes. I know many people who take great pride in their streaks and none of them are as fast as people who either schedule days off into their training or take days off when needed in spite of what the schedule says.

 I have a rather personal relationship with this subject as instinctively, I have the desire to maintain a streak. I have never had the same preoccupation with simply getting out the door every day as I see others do. My definition of a streak has always entailed having a decent training effect. If someone who is a decent runner, stumbles out the door when sick or injured for a couple miles at ten minutes per mile or slower, I don't consider that having run that day. I don't know how or why anyone would. In college, I decided that my streaks would mandate at least sixty minutes of running at an eight minute mile effort or better. I say effort because I had many runs that started straight up hill and a seven mile run often took about an hour with the same effort that would have gotten me nine miles on the flats.

 I remember quite clearly my first real commitment to getting over 100 days under this format. It was kind of tough getting used to but I made the first 100 days without too much of a problem. Right about the 100 day mark, I was helping out at a camp in Mammoth that my high school coach was putting on. He happened to be giving a lecture on streaks. He pointed out that streaks were not an ends in and of themselves, but rather a means to the ultimate goal... running faster. He also pointed out that streaks should not be calculated merely on getting some random running in, but on getting in the training prescribed. This made lots of sense in that it took out that three mile stumble for the sake of saying you "ran" that day. If you had a long run scheduled, or an interval workout, then anything except that broke the training streak. The point to this concept was not to get people to kill themselves following the letter of their schedule, but to make it easier to accept the "streak" was broken and just taking the day off. He went even further with this concept. Bill scheduled six  running days a week in his training plans. The seventh day of training was a recovery day... an off day. At this point in his lecture, he looked at me and asked me how many days a week I ran in high school. I told him most weeks were seven days and he turned to the group and said I never kept a streak of more than six days back then. It was a great point. The schedule was six days. When I deviated from the schedule. I broke the streak. Every seventh day that I ran, I lost my streak.

Now I am not 100% convinced that runners need a day off every week but the underlying principle that  recovery is crucial when training for performance is the principle behind that idea. weight lifters get it. The serious ones only lift one body group per week. They lift hard and heavy when they do lift, but only one body group per week. The rest of the week those muscles get to recover. Any runner focused on his streak is not focusing on his performance. This might be the time to point out how my streak that year ended. I got somewhere around 190 days of at least sixty minutes per day at a legitimate effort and the streak ended with mono. Before I got mono I was running the best in my life but that meant little when I struggled to finish 10th at my conference meet when I favored to win, when I had to sit out of the regional meet, when  I finished 60 something at nationals while the guys I had been racing in front of earlier in the season were top ten. I had not heeded Bill's advice at the time. For awhile, I learned. I readjusted the way I trained, ran a 30:16 10k after with days off on my schedule, a 1:06:39 half marathon with days off in my schedule, had scores of great races while running 25-28 days a month. I even adjusted my streak to include days of cross training with great results.

Last spring I decided to resume my 60 minutes a day running streak in a quest to reach a level of running I had not reached recently. It started out well, going from fairly unfit to to a 32:51 10k in a couple months. I couldn't wait to see what another couple months would bring. After suffering what seemed to be a minor injury, I kept the streak alive. Any runner I coached would have been benched with cross training and rehab. Of course I kept the streak alive with both days running and quality workouts. My 100th day of the streak was a race in which I could barely tolerate the pain. It was a mediocre race and I limped the entire warm down. I probably ran about three weeks on a stress fracture that stemmed from the tight, injured soleus pulling on my fragile tibia. So much for that season.

With this in mind, I looked at my 33 day streak of 60+ minutes on Friday morning. No injuries or illness but my Thursday workout was garbage. I was simply not responding to the training the way I should have been. I looked at old diaries. I looked at how many of my athletes had run great times, at how many times I had made great progression, while taking days off not only when scheduled, but when I felt they were needed. I took Friday off. Doesn't seem that dramatic until you really get inside the head of an obsessive compulsive. I had to keep reminding myself of the purpose of my training. to race well. Not to accumulate larger numbers. Ironically, it's smaller numbers, my racing times, that I seek.

So the fastest thing on two feet does not belong to the streakers. It belongs to those who can answer Parsifal's question, "whom does the grail serve." The streak serves the purpose, it is not the purpose in and of itself. The purpose is to race fast and more importantly to race fast on the right day. Far fewer people know who has run 365 days in the last year than who know who just won the World Championship 10,000 meters. As a coach, I insist on days off for my athletes. I don't know why I can't coach myself that way. Interesting contrast. I go back to what my high school coach said. the scheduled day off is keeping the streak. That's the trick to better times. If you can't run the way you should be running, don't bother running that day. Recover, don't destroy even more. Streaking is much more effective the Ray Stevens way.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

No-Man's Land

One of my first really big coaching influences was Jack Daniels. As a young coach I would stay up late at night with a bottle of fine Tennessee Whiskey, pour glass after glass, and the next morning I would have a top notch training schedule that I didn't even remember writing. It was like the cobbler and the elves. Just kidding! Obviously I refer to legendary inventor of the phrase VDOT and for all intents and purposes, father of the modern tempo run, the man who Runner's World once called "greatest coach in the world." Years before The Daniels' Running Formula was ever written, I would use his lecture notes from The Olympic Training Center's coaching education as a basis for many of my schedules. Later on I got a chance to meet him and subsequently traded some letters and phone calls and soaked up whatever I could from the exchanges. To this day I still think of training templates in my head that have foundations in what I learned from Daniels in those days. If you actually saw the schedules and workouts my athletes run over a season, however, you might never know this.

One of the cornerstones of Daniels running formula is the pace charts. Everything is based on the percentage of your VDOT pace. (For those that didn't run cross country at Glastonbury High School and thus haven't had the term crammed down their throats a zillion times per week) VDOT refers to a number that estimates a runner's VO2 max based on race performances. I actually personally never used VDOT as I found it extraneous. I used VDOT's brother, VVO2, which had a more practical application in estimating the velocity at which VO2 max first occurred. Either way, this pace is estimated to happen at the max average speed you could hold for a fifteen minute race. Once you know this VVO2, you train at pace zones that are a specific percentage of this pace for for all training and do not deviate in the slightest lest you destroy an entire season's hard work. I have actually offended people who swear by The Daniels Running Formula with my maverick usage of other training zones. I used to try to debate the whole idea of pragmatic training with them but in the end conceded that obviously, I must not know Jack... or do I?

As I said, I was reading lecture notes and talking to Daniels long before the book ever came out. I remember little things he said like, "tempo runs say 88% but that's just for the masses, a decently conditioned athlete should run more like 92%." What about the recoveries, which are probably the second most dogmatic principles of The Running Formula? Well, I'm not looking at a book right now, it's on loan to someone who I think will get more out of it, but I recall that all VVO2 workouts were supposed to have roughly equal work to rest ratios. All "Repetitions" (about mile pace) were supposed to have around 3:1 work to rest ratios, tempo intervals (88% VVo2) got sixty seconds recovery. Well, I remember Jack talking about - and I'm pretty sure this is in his first book - one of favorite workouts being a fartlek workout on the cross country course that included intervals of 30, 60 and 120 seconds followed by recovery runs of no more than sixty seconds for the duration of the course. He mentioned sometimes his athletes would set personal records for the course while doing this workout. For this to happen, not only would the intervals have to be faster than "I" pace, but the recoveries, at least on the 120 second surges, were not only cut to half of the work time but must have been done at quite a brisk jog. I also remember a workout he mentions of 10x400 at mile pace (R pace) with sixty second recoveries. Once again, far less than "The Formula" called for.

So I think we've established that there is some flexibility to to the program. You can't teach someone how to coach in a book. The best you can do is give them guidelines that they will follow, in my opinion, in reverse proportion to how confident and competent they are as coaches. The least confident will hold up the formulas as sacred and the more confident will have more say according to how their and more importantly their athletes' experiences dictate. There are obvious exceptions to this. I once debated a coach who swore tempo pace for high school girls was actually faster than VO2 pace. ( I actually made him repeat this twice as I thought for sure no one could possibly think this). He had some fast runners so thought that proved he was right in making this change. Of course he had answers for why his runners were always getting injured and why they seemed to peak at random times rather than at the end of the season. They were "soft." Yes, that is a quote. I think the last thing I pointed out was that they seemed to become soft at the exact time he got to that school because the team was more successful and far less injured before he got there so they must have gotten "soft", coincidentally upon his arrival. But insanely stupid people aside, coaching is an art of not only following formulas but in reading athletes and learning how to best utilize training principles such as Supercompensation, SAID, Progressive Overload, and of course Law of diminishing returns. Yeah, I'm big on law of diminishing returns and here is where the title of this blog ties in.


This comes with Daniels' book along with the admonition:

"No man's land of training. Training intensities that fall into 'No man's land,' are either too easy or too hard to reap the benefits you want. You are not, as may sometimes be assumed, achieving the purpose of training the two systems on either side of the chosen intensity. What you are doing might be termed, "Quality-junk" training. At the least, it is training aimed at accomplishing an unidentifiable purpose. Always have a purpose for every training session; ask yourself the following questions: 'What system do I hope to improve by doing this workout,' and 'What am I really trying to accomplish?"

I have a few issues with this. The first is related to the law of diminishing returns. If I spend season after season, year after year, focusing on these systems exclusively, I will maximally adapt them in a few years at most. I guarantee I will gain more from training new systems that are in "no man's land' than beating the dead horses that are my specific "Daniels Formula"systems. There is a logical conundrum as well. Daniels allows a special dispensation for marathoners to train at "MP", or marathon pace, which falls below the "T" zone. This is to allow for race specific training. Ok, so specificity is important after all then. What about 95% for 10k runners? Beyond that though, there have been some great crossover marathon/10k runners in history. If a 10k runner should never run at MP, only true marathon specialists, how can all of these marathoners have done so much work at MP and still rocked the 10k. How did Frank Shorter run 27:51  for a 10k in an Olympic final five days before winning gold in the Olympic marathon? Oh yeah, he also ran 27:58 at the same Olympics to qualify for the finals. Compare that to the runners of today who run a single 10k and seem to need three months of no racing to recover. That is, if they can recover at all. I'll bet Shorter trained all over the no man's land zones.

But beyond law of diminishing returns, beyond specificity, can anyone really believe there is no benefit to the zones listed as no man's land? Let's look at these zones. 

  • All Out = "Too Fast": Really? So flat out 30-50 meter sprints serve no purpose. Hill sprints serve no purpose. ATP production has no value. A single, flat out time trial of 200-400 meters or a big close to a quarters workout won't help in a race. I have used all of these in training schedules and would never want to abandon them.
  • The space between Reps and Intervals: This is 3k pace for most runners. Again... really? No 3k/3200 pace running. No 6x800 at 3200 pace. No early season 400s at slightly slower than mile pace but faster than 5k pace (or VDOT)? To repeat, no way would I give these up.
  • The space between I and T paces. We have touched on the value of specificity training for a 10k runner. Even for a 5k runner, or a miler though. Why not hit some mile repeats at 95%? Because it's "quality junk?" I don't believe it. One of the best base schedules I ever wrote, as far as the results it produced, was a 10k paced workout once per week. No way I give these up.
  • MP training for non-marathoners. The first thing I do when I get a Daniels' Formula trained athlete is add in what I have coined the "Sub tempo." Either shorter daily runs at 80-85% or longer tempo runs (6-10 miles) at 80-85% VVO2.  Once again, some of the most profound results I have seen, even for milers and 800 runners, have come from adding these in to a schedule. No way I give these up.
  • Below 70%: "Junk Mileage?" Maybe. Viva le Junk! All I needed was one girlfriend who was a runner to learn that, when mixed into the rest of a training plan, junk mileage is awesome. All the way to 55%, maybe even lower, has it's place. Greater fat burning efficiency and some of the most enjoyable, mentally and emotionally stimulating and rejuvenating  running there is. If I had to, I'd give this up but I'd be pretty upset about it and doubt my teams would run as well. Long live the "sprinter shuffle!"
So to reiterate... I have the utmost respect for Jack Daniels as a coach and a mentor to other coaches. He might be second most influential coach in history behind Arthur Lydiard. But just as actual training logs from guys like Peter Snell look nothing like what most people consider "Lydiard" training, I seriously doubt Daniels trained athletes spend no time in No Man's Land zones. If i had to, and I might do this as my next training experiment, I would happily train exclusively in No Man's Land zones and feel very confident as to the outcome. While I wouldn't want to challenge Jack Daniels to a coach-off, I would take on the vast majority of his pseudo disciples using only the forbidden zones. (Ooh that's an idea... "Training in the Forbidden Zones" I'm writing a schedule with that title.) 

Monday, August 22, 2011

K-Mart Principle

This could also be called the Wal-Mart principle, Target Principle, or ARCO principle. This principle is based on what people in sales call "perceived value." Perceived value refers to what consumers think something is worth, totally irrespective of what it is actually worth. The stores I list above are all kings of actual value as they offer products of equal quality to more expensive stores at far lower prices. Yet people are embarrassed or refuse to go there. My epiphany on this matter came one day when a friend was complaining about the price of gas. I told him it was actually fifteen cents per gallon cheaper at ARCO and he said , "Oh, but that's ARCO gas." (Keep in mind this was well before the BP oil spill so boycott was not an issue at this time.) I had heard the myth that cheaper gas was the "bottom of the barrel" reject of the major suppliers. I had heard it over twenty years ago when I first started driving. I had also researched it and found it to be false. So simply because the price at ARCO was TOO GOOD, my friend, and many others, refused to buy it because it must be "cheap" both literally and figuratively.

Long before this I noticed this phenomenon with clothing stores. The common insult was "where did you get those jeans, K-mart?" It's not that the jeans, or top or whatever would be bad, they would just not have a recognizable brand name. While my very young years exposed me to the designer jeans craze, by the time I was in middle school I don't think anyone wore anything except Guess and Levis. Except, me of course, I didn't wear jeans, I wore shorts every day. Years later when I finally bought a pair of jeans for myself, I looked at the price of Levis, said, screw that, went to Wal-Mart and grabbed a pair of  "Bugle Boys" for under twenty dollars. That was about ten years ago; they're just starting to rip to the point where I can't wear them now. I would say last year they were ripped to the point that many people buy their jeans ripped at new. (What the hell is up with that? You pay fifty bucks for a pair of jeans that are already ripped?)

So is this going to tie into running at all or has Pete finally run out of things to say about running and is going off on the value of cheap stuff? Silly question. Like I will ever run out of things to say about running. When I see how sports are handled I see the same principle in effect. Starting with youth sports, soccer, basketball, football and baseball programs cost an arm and a leg and still get countless kids trying out every year. That's right, I said trying out. Because the top programs that charge so much money have cuts. It's possible to offer these teams thousands of dollars per year and be told, "we're sorry, your child is not good enough for us to take your money." Meanwhile most youth running clubs charge minuscule amounts in comparison and have an even more minuscule amount of kids wanting to participate. Not only that but these programs demand attendance and work ethic and even mandatory parent volunteer hours and extra fun raising. That's right, several thousand a year is not enough from you, you also commit to fundraising another few grand. I've seen cults that were more flexible. Compare that to the average youth running club. Show up when you want, just show to races if you want, begging parents to hold a watch for a couple races to help time.

It doesn't get any better when kids get to high school. Once again, practice is mandatory, non practice team meetings and commitments are mandatory. There are fundraising and parental commitments. And yes, once again, after all this, you might not even be accepted. There are cuts. And yes, once again scores of kids try out for each of these teams each season. Meanwhile high school running coaches may pretend to have attendance policies but they're rarely enforced. As I found out at my last high school, the Athletic Director wouldn't let me enforce the same attendance policy other sports had. In fact, he wouldn't let me enforce the attendance policy stipulated by state rules.  Kids will boldly walk up and say they will have to leave a meet early or not even go to a meet due to another commitment. They'll skip practice to play other sports. Still coaches are begging for athletes to run. As mentioned in in the Pridentity blog, they make deals to get kids out.

This seems bad but we haven't even gotten to the worst of it. To use my current abode as an example, Bellingham, Washington had three graduates at the NCAA Track and Field Championships last year, two of whom were All-American. Three other athletes had qualified for the regional meet in which national qualifiers were taken from. That's six athletes, equally split between the three local high schools, running at the Division I level and being among the best athletes in the country. Meanwhile, I don't think the Bellingham graduates from all of the rest of the sports combined could match that success. Still, kids with great promise as runners would rather ride the bench of the volleyball, soccer, football, basketball etc. teams than have a chance at being successful runners. It's the K-Mart principle.

By devaluing the sport with all of their deals, with their lenient rules, with their come one, come all, regardless of whether you actually want to participate in this sport versus this recreation, coaches and administrators kill the sport of running. Now up to this point everything I have said has been theory. What if it's not the attitude, what if kids just won't run. Well, I've been to the mountain and I've seen it done differently. Growing up, Hawthorne High School in Los Angeles was legendary not only for its performances but for its squad sizes. These were, tough, scary looking inner city kids who operated with military precision on the track. their coach had mandatory grade checks, uniform policies, attendance policies. Regardless of what they did with the rest of their time, they toed the line when it came to track. I heard tons of similar stories of coaches who did similar things throughout the country. The more they made kids respect the sport, the more kids came out.

Those who ran for me at Glastonbury will remember my first day of practice speech. As I looked out at the eighty plus kids at the first meeting, I flat out said that I expected ten to fifteen to quit in the first week. It wasn't anything personal, I just bet that they heard about the glory of our success and wanted to be a part of it without being a part of of the work that went into it. Sure enough, first week went by and we were about 2000 pounds lighter. Still, every year the numbers were high on the first day and only slightly lower a few weeks later. In spite of the fast that my first year coaching was the first year kids had to pay to participate in sports, the numbers increased from before I was there. The numbers went up because I didn't devalue the sport. Now don't get me wrong. I never told anyone they were too slow for the team. Any kid who was willing to work hard, no matter the talent was welcome. What I told the kids was everyone trains like an All State athlete. The only thing that holds you back is your talent.  I once had a kid who other coaches told me was one of the most talented distance runners they had ever seen coming out of eighth grade. He didn't want to be a part of hard working team though. First week of practice I gave him his options. 1) Work Harder 2) Quit 3) Be kicked off the team. I never saw him again that season.

What about the other kids? The ones that thought track would be a joke, a time to flirt with the girls and didn't want to be serious but appreciated the value the sport had when shown to them. I had runner who I thought was notoriously lazy but very respectful and also very fast. He did what he was told but it always looked like he was holding back. I once remarked to another coach what a shame it was he was so lazy. The other coach laughed and said every coach who had worked with him before was asking how I got him to work as hard as he did. I had a few athletes tell me they didn't know why but I got them to work harder than they ever wanted to or thought they could and thanked me for it. The most classic was the football star (ended up playing in college) who came out for track because he heard from the other kids I was a conditioning specialist and figured it would help him. it was my first year and we were still changing the reputation away from the K-Mart image." As he sat in the locker rooms with his head in his hands after one workout, not really feeling like moving, another one of my runners came in, he looked up and said, "If I ever hear anyone saying track is a joke sport I'm going to kill them." That statement alone probably got me an extra ten kids the next year.

Bottom line is, as a sport, as runners, as coaches, we complain about the lack of respect for our sport but to a large extent, we do it to ourselves. How many runners go to professional football, soccer, basketball, baseball games and never once pay to see a top level high school, college or professional meet. Shame on you. How many parents who are runners push their kids at football, soccer, basketball, baseball and then take them to all comers meets with no formal coaching and say, "Go Run!" With that attitude, what do you expect.?