Running after I was kicked off the University of Kansas cross country team was indifferent for the better part of a decade. I was indifferent when it came to training as I ran 10 to 20 miles a week through college. I was a spring/summer/fall runner who would shut it down over the winter and put on 20 pounds.
In college I managed to break 3 hours in the marathon which was pretty surprising considering I did it on 20 miles a week over about a three month period. What I lacked in endurance I made up for in speed because I could still run a 4:45 mile with no interval training.
After graduation the pattern continued and probably would have stayed that way except for a two exceptional young runners at Rockhurst High School in Kansas City. In the fall of 1984 I offered myself up as an unpaid assistant cross country coach at Rockhurst. The coach, Buddy Worth, really didn't know much about distance running. He was a tennis coach.
The team that fall had two runners who generally trained together, on their own. One fall afternoon I went on an 8 mile run with them where they extolled the virtues of their private coach, a man named Tom Dowling. He worked out of a health club called Health Plus. Matt Blake and Tom Spencer were better than average runners. They had endurance that stood head and shoulders above anyone else on the team. They told me over the next several miles that Dowling was just the prescription I needed to start kick my moribund approach to running.
Just days before my 30th birthday in December of 1985 I went to meet Tom Dowling to find out his secret to success. I don't remember much about that first meeting, save for a daunting calendar that he gave me with miles attached to it. He also insisted that I start to keep a running log, something I had never really done over the years.
I told Tom my main goal was to break 2:40 in the marathon. My PR at that point was 2:57:14. Coach Dowling said I could do it in the next three years if I followed his program. Looking at that calendar I saw a progression from about 30 miles a week to the mid-60's by the summer of 1985. I told him I could never run more than 10 miles on any given day. He had me doing 21 mile long runs by the end of that summer. I whined, bargained, begged, and pleaded for something more reasonable. He told me no. Plus, he forbade any speed work.
Through the winter and spring something amazing happened. I began to enjoy training. A lot of it had to do with the Sunday morning long runs and the camaraderie that sprung from it. I suddenly had a bundle of new friends, suddenly running 21 miles on Sunday didn't seem so daunting. 10 mile runs felt like 3 miles, 15 like 5, 21 like 10.
The biggest thing was the set of new friends who held me accountable for my training along with Coach Dowling. I looked to guys like Glen Sauder and Steve Greer, who were just trying to shave a few minutes from their 10K, to a sub 30 minute 10K runner like Bob Luder, who was trying to compete against the best runners across the Midwest. The constant for all of us was Dowling. He was the focal point of our running, a constant topic on the miles we logged together. He was our guru and we would follow him. Tom preached the gospel of Arthur Lydiard, the great New Zealand coach who invented the idea of long, slow, distance and we followed.
By the end of the fall of 1986 I ran a 2:49:25 marathon. It was an amazing experience. I wasn't even trying to race. The running never felt so easy except for a very painful last mile. I was on a path to my goal, but like any journey there were detours and setbacks.
Being devoted to a weekend long run wasn't easy for a party animal like myself. I paid the price on too many Sundays. But I took away a foundation of conditioning and friendships that would serve me well for the next 30 years. But it would take a move to ignite my quest of a sub 2:40 marathon.