I fielded questions after a recent local 5K about how I have been able to maintain my fitness for so long. One question came in this form: "Dude, you are so old! Did they have running shoes when you started out?" Answer - No way. We either ran barefoot or wrapped our feet in animal skins. Actually, the running shoe industry was in its infancy. I raced in a pair of Adidas that amounted to nothing more than a strap of nylon stitched to a thin solid rubber sheet. And I loved them!
Another question asked was: "You have placed high in races for years. How have you managed to remained healthy for so long?" I have not always been healthy, but I have been almost completely free of injuries for two decades. That is how long I have been practicing the low-mileage approach. I am betting that there is a limit to my lifetime mileage and I want to spread it out over a long life. My running age is 32 years and counting.
A third question I answered was: "How have you stayed motivated for so many years?" The answer to that question is the one that I want to address in this post.
Way back in the late fall of 1978 I ran 1.5 miles in gym class on a "D" shaped track with about 100 other people all doing the same thing at their own paces. I finished in 8:03. A week later the gym teacher took me out to the track and had me run it again. Alone. He timed me as my freshmen football coach and the freshmen track coach looked on. The result - 7:52. The advice for this 128-lb wanna-be football player came from my football coach: "Shane, you should run cross country." My reply: "What is that?"
And thus began my running life. Several weeks after that second timed run the track coach asked me if I was training. (What's that?) My first run took place just after school had been called off on account of a 6-inch snowfall. I ran five miles that included the crossing of a not quite frozen enough creek. Good thing I had put those bread bags under my tube socks!
I soon learned that I would likely be a "2-mile" man. I also found a nice 4-mile loop. I measured the loop with my moped, marking the 1- and 2-mile marks. The two mile mark was located at a bus stop on top of a quarter-mile long hill that (I now know) climbed 70 feet. A good climb. Not having any idea what "fast" was, I ran the first two miles of that course hard EVERY day. The times slowly got better: 11:38 - 11:27 - 11:19 - 11:15. Looking back now I have to laugh about how much that hurt - how much I abused myself.
You see, I had a job at first one grocery store, then another. I rarely ran this loop before 10 pm and quite often didn't get out there until midnight after work shifts in which I moved 2-3 tons of stock. The important message in this post can be stated in one word: goals. I didn't know what a fast 2-mile time was, but 11 was a round number and I wanted to break that mark as soon as I had finished the first run. Before that freshman (1979) track season started, I celebrated when I clocked 10:59 and 10:58 on the course that I now know was about 35 meters short. I went on to produce times in the 10:40's on the track that year.
Why would I rehash that start? Because I have never lost my "attachment" to the 2-mile run. I am, today, a 2-miler. Yeah, I'm old school "mile" man. How have I remained attached to the 2-mile? Go back to the one word that I earlier wrote is the message of this post: goals. Because it was a goal that was so hard for me to achieve, I decided in high school that it took real fitness to run a sub-10 2-mile. So, I decided that I would try to run a sub-10 2-mile every year. Then, while attending Purdue, I decided to put myself to the 2-mile test every year sometime around my birthday (Nov. 11). I realize that this is simply an arbitrary time and an arbitrary goal that I established based on my own life experiences, but that goal has supplied most of the driving force that has kept me fit for so long. I have reached the goal in all but 3 (non-running) years since 1982.
Notice that the goal has nothing to do with winning a specific race or beating ANY other human. The goal is to run, usually alone with a witness or two watching, a little more than eight laps around a track in less than 10 minutes. One man on a track racing only the clock. A straight forward goal and a simple task. Reaching that annual goal has taken me on quite a long ride that has required me to learn a lot about physiology and even more about myself. There are very few days in a given year when I do not reflect on the fact that I have to get myself ready to attempt the run. My fitness may vary throughout the year, but I try to be within a 4-6 week program from reaching the goal.
I eventually took up bike racing. With that I added the goal of riding an annual 40K time trial in less than 60 minutes. That goal is one that I have reached all but 3 (non-cycling) years since 1988.
Last Saturday I decided, on a whim, to run in a local 5K. I simply did not want to suffer, so I settled into a fairly comfortable 5:30ish threshold pace and finished in 17:07. Then I went to the USI woods and ran for an hour. It was a hot day, so I spent hours sipping on fluids after that. Late in the day I got stir-crazy and decided to take a ride.
I thought the ride would be an easy hour long effort. But I hit the first five miles in 12:20. Hmmm. I thought that I had a tailwind - a strong tailwind. I kept turning the pedals and hit ten miles in 24:25. Hmmm. There were plenty of rolling hills in there. I then started pushing a little harder on those pedals. Fifteen miles passed in 36:24. That was about the time that I noticed a flag. It indicated that I had been riding into the wind the first five miles.
The easy hour ride went, well, ballistic. I started pedalling even harder as I began to tighten up. Twenty miles went by in 47:42. Then the course flattened out and I turned, gaining a slight but much needed tailwind. I hit 25 miles, just over 40K, in 59:10, making this my 20th sub-60 year in 20 years of cycling. A milestone.
I put a lot of miles on the bike leading up to the big week in July. Those miles are obviously still in there! I realize that a sub-hour 40K bike TT is not any more awesome than a sub-10 2-mile run. I know that I am not, and never have been, a good athlete. I'm just above average on my best days. I also realize that I make goals important and that I strive to reach them. Reaching them, year after year, has kept me fit. Sadly, my fitness is well above average for a man my age. (I wish all of the guys voting for a federal healthcare plan had to live my healthy lifestyle in order to receive benefits. McD's would soon close up shop!)
Reaching my goal of maintaining a high level of fitness is one of the things that keeps me happy.