Thursday, February 28, 2019

My Marathon Journeys: Grandma's 1987

1987 was the year I was going to run a 2:45 marathon.  I was in the best shape of my life.  I had a steady spring of long runs that included some first rate workouts.  I remember running 15 miles with 5 repeat miles thrown in at 5:30 pace in the middle of the run.

On my last long run of 23 miles two weeks before my target marathon my coach, Tom Dowling, wanted me to run the last five miles at 6:30 pace.  I remember it was a warm Sunday morning in early June.  I had run with a group of four others at about 7:20 pace when we got to 18 miles.  Dowling must have put two of them up to making sure I ran the last five at the suggested pace.  We were flying and I was fit.  I put them away after two miles and averaged under 6:30 to wrap up the run.

The target was Grandma's Marathon in Duluth.  It would mark my second run at Grandma's.  I knew the course.  The race offers spectacular views of Lake Superior with gentle rolling hills.  The weather traditionally the third weekend in June was usually cool.

But my plans were thwarted by a couple of things.  My work life was in turmoil.  I wanted a promotion I wasn't getting.  I decided to go for a position within the company in Phoenix that offered a chance for advancement.    I didn't tell my boss.

The Monday before the big race I was offered the job.  I remember going out that night with my then girlfriend to discuss the opportunity.  We ate at a South Kansas City tavern and I got a terrible case of food poisoning at dawn.  I had terrible diarrhea and was vomiting.  I was no condition to go to work.

My phone rang at 9 a.m.  It was my boss.  I hadn't even called out sick yet due to the fact that I didn't go to work until 1:30 p.m.  He started screaming at me about the Phoenix job.  I was shocked that he knew.  I hadn't even accepted the position.  His attitude about my apparent lack of loyalty helped me make my decision to leave.

So just five days out from the big race I was suddenly faced with the fact that I would be moving to Phoenix in July.  What I didn't know was that bought of food poisoning would leave me depleted of vital minerals when I toed the line on Saturday, June 20th.  Worse still it was unseasonably warm at the start of the race.

John and Kathy mid-race
Grandma's that year was hosting the USA women's national marathon championship.  Coach Dowling had arranged for me to run with one of his old friends, Kathy Northrup, who was hoping to run an Olympic Trials qualifier in 2:45.  I stood right behind the women's pen which occupied the front of the starting line.

It didn't take long for everything to be sorted out at the start.  Kathy and I were running along, side by side, rather easily.  We were running along at 6:20 pace.  It felt pretty easy for the first ten miles as we were out in around 64 minutes.

The heat was taking its toll and I could tell the Gatorade that I had downed before the start in hopes of holding off dehydration wasn't sitting well with my stomach.  Somewhere before mile 16 I let Kathy know I could no longer hold the pace.  She pushed on ahead looking for her OT qualifier.

I began shuffling along at 6:50 pace.  It felt incredibly easy but any attempt to push any faster left me feeling queasy.  The heat was now stifling as I passed the 20 mile mark.  It was shortly after 20 that I saw Kathy ahead getting on board a shuttle bus that was picking up runners, laid waste by the heat.

I forged ahead to the finish.  I was cussing myself knowing now that I wouldn't even run a PR, much less break 2:50.  I hit the finish line in 2:51:42.  It was good enough for 189th place out of more than 4,000 runners.  I was a mere 31st in my age group.

I was handed two tickets for free beer after hitting the finish.  I was drunk as skunk one hour after the finish on two beers.  The days that followed were awful.  I could barely walk.  My legs were beaten to a pulp.   I chalk that up to the dehydration and food poisoning.  I only managed to run three times over the next two weeks.

By July 5th  I was living in Phoenix.  I tried to resume training.  The heat was impossible.  Looking back at my logs that I now kept thanks to Coach Dowling I managed my first long run post marathon on July 18th.  It was 16 miles with a group led by Craig Davidson.  It was the start of a friendship that endures to this day.  But it would another nine months before I would tackle the marathon again.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

My Marathon Journeys: Kansas City 1986

I turned 30 at the end of 1985.  I came to my December birthday having decided to take my running a lot more seriously.  The change was sparked in part from my time volunteering as an assistant cross country coach at Rockhurst High School.  Two of the Rockhurst runners had caught my eye.

Tom Spencer and Matt Blake didn't do the majority of workouts given by the head coach.  They spent most of their time running a lot of miles.  Both were good high school runners, but not great.  Yet I could see through the work they were doing, these two seniors were getting the most out of their abilities.  Both urged me to sit down with their private coach, Tom Dowling.

I've written about Tom before.  He was different from any coach, any runner, I had ever encountered.  He asked me to do things that I didn't believe I could do.  He sucked me into a world of running that I really didn't know existed.

I had been coached to run intervals.  I ran a lot of intervals, even throughout the first five years of the 1980's.  I did a lot of 440's, a lot of 440's.  Tom said the track work was over.  He wanted me to focus on miles.  It was a lot of miles and a weekly tempo run thrown in and the goal of breaking 2:40 in the marathon.  Tom said it would take time to get there.  It could take three to five years.

I went through the winter, spring and summer of 86 piling up the miles.  My late spring races showed promise.  My trouble was staying injury free and when my old habits would get the best of me I would pay for it.  I couldn't keep myself off the track.  When I would run intervals I would usually find myself gimpy.

Prime racing season gets underway in September in Kansas City.  I had run a couple of 10K's in the low 36 range.  I begged Dowling to let me run the Kansas City Marathon in November.  He said I could do it on one condition.  I had to run it as a training run.  That meant no racing.  I agreed.

The 1986 edition was on a gnarly course.  It featured a lot of rolling hills over the first eight miles with a monster hill at 9.  After mile 10 the course went on for a gentle downhill 6 mile out and then it was a slow ascent to mile 25 before you worked your way up one final monster hill.

I went out at a pace that felt comfortable next to a runner I knew from Lawrence, Bill Reetz.  Bill planned to break three hours.  I was supposed to be running 3:15 or so.  I went by Dowling at three miles.  He was screaming at me for going too fast.  We went through in 18:30.

It all felt so easy and I didn't even mind the monster hill at 9 miles where Bill fell by the wayside.  Tom Dowling was again at the ten mile mark with a wry smile on his face.  I went through in 63:30.  He yelled slow down, you might run 2:45.  I was confused.  I knew he didn't care at this point what I did but this was all feeling way to easy.

The weather was good for November 16th.  The next 14 miles were uneventful but I could tell I was starting to slow after 21 miles.  Part of it was the gradual climb to the finish, part of it was the toll of running in unknown territory.  By mile 24 I was beginning to hurt.  The last mile was hell.  The uphill was excruciating as I turned to run the final .2 to the finish.  I could see the clock... 2:49... tick... tick... tick across the finish in 2:49:34.
I collapsed into my girlfriend's arms.  I had never been so spent.  I was suffering a terrible sugar crash and was on the verge of passing out.  Dowling was there with a Coke and I started to revive.  It was an eye-opening run.  I had finished 26th overall and even took an age group award finishing 4th.  It told me that I was on the right path in my training.  Lydiard style training suited me to a T despite the chaos of my television work life.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

My Marathon Journeys: Kansas City 1985

The first half of the 1980's was filled with running indifference.  I trained haphazardly, I raced sporadically, with the feeling that the clock was ticking on my running career.  I was in a running rut.

Professionally, as a television news producer, my life was hitting on all four cylinders.  But my hours were all over the map and I was frequently asked to work weekends.  Because of my complete lack of self discipline, training on a consistent manner was impossible.

Outside of one shot at the Hospital Hill half marathon, a 10K the following year with a marathon in 1982, the only other race I recall running during that period was a 5K in Lawrence, probably the first or second Maupintour 5K in 1981 or 82 and a 10K in 1984 when I was very out of shape.  I know there were other races during that period, but I didn't keep a training log until 1986.

Something about that 10K in the fall of 1984, where I ran about 45 minutes, probably sparked me to some serious training.  I had my eye on the Kansas City Marathon.  I have checked the records.  There is no date or results on line for the 1985 Kansas City Marathon.  Fortunately my friends from the University of Kansas, the Mad Dogs, list the race as having happened on May 12th.

The course for this edition was used only once.  It was a double loop course which started on the Country Club Plaza and took runners all the way out Brush Creek to the V.A. Hospital to the east.  It was hilly but not overly so for a Kansas City race.

I figured I was in about the same shape as I had been in Lamoni in 1982.  I had told my girlfriend to park at the 18 mile mark on the 2nd loop in case it went badly.

Boy, did it ever.  I rolled through the first loop with nary a problem.  I hit the half marathon in 1:31 and felt great.  I must have looked too great because the girlfriend figured there was no need to go to the 18 mile mark.

I knew by mile 17 that it wasn't going to be my day.  I didn't want to destroy my legs running a three hour plus marathon.  I hit 18 miles and no girlfriend.  Same at mile 19 and mile 20.  I was one unhappy camper as I made my way through the streets and hit the finish in 3:11.  I was beat all to hell and knew there must be a better way to running a marathon.

Fortunately, my training continued and improved.  I managed to run a sub 30 minute 8K in Eugene, Oregon the following month.  I would run through the summer and spring but it wasn't until December that I would come across a man who knew the secret to running a decent marathon.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

My Marathon Journeys: Lamoni 1982

Some marathons are made to be forgotten.  So it is with the fourth marathon I attempted.  I can't remember why I decided it made sense to run a marathon in the fall of 1981.  Since the Grandma's marathon of 1979 my running and racing was sporadic at best.

I had moved to Little Rock in March of 1980.  I trained fairly regularly despite a summer that turned hotter than hell.  I can remember going into work at 1 p.m. during the months of July and August and seeing a bank clock hitting triple digits.  I did most of my three to five mile runs at night, after 11 p.m.  It was the only way to survive the hottest summer on record in years.

I ran only one race in Little Rock.  It was a 10K in September.  I was over-matched and ill prepared and barely ran 42 minutes.  A month later I had moved to Kansas City for a better television job and the running was on again, off again throughout the winter and spring.

I ran the 1981 Hospital Hill Half Marathon.  I must have been in decent shape as I broke 1:30.  The time was still a good five minutes slower than my best half at the time but at some point in the weekend after the early June race I had decided to run a marathon again.

It would be another year before I raced again.  First, I ran a 10K in Louisburg, Kansas finishing somewhere in the top ten in 39 minutes.  This was the first weekend in September.

I checked the calendars and had decided on a late September marathon in the little southwest Iowa town of Lamoni.  The town is home to Graceland College, which produced 1976 Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner.

I arrived in Lamoni having no idea what to expect.  One thing was clear as I toed the line with more than 100 other runners, it was going to be hot.  Organizers were starting a 10K, half marathon and marathon together.  So figuring out my competition was a little difficult.

The marathon course consisted of two large loops, some paved, some gravel and some brick with a mix of gentle, rolling hills.  When the gun sounded I found myself out in third place among all of the runners and that's where I would stay through the first loop. Second place was out of sight and I could see no one behind me.

Somewhere after 17 miles I rolled up and passed the second place runner.  First was a good 20 minutes ahead of me.  The last loop became pretty intense over the last six miles.  I negotiated the brick streets over the last two miles praying for the finish line which I crossed just under 3 hours and 12 minutes.  I had a second place medal to show for a race that didn't offer a lot of competition.

At this point in my life work and not running was becoming a bigger and bigger priority.  I would run the occasional road race after that, but my marathon running days seemed to be behind me.  It would be two years before I decided to give 26.2 miles another go.

Friday, February 8, 2019

My Marthon Journeys: Grandma's 1979

Validating a sub-three hour marathon became a big deal to me.  My junior year in college I had managed to break three on a minimal amount of training.  Two years later, now out of college and working full time in Minneapolis at the NBC affiliate I saw an opportunity to run another marathon.

Grandma's was a relatively new marathon and I had heard a lot of good things about it.  I knew that I could get a relatively decent amount of training in beginning in April when the brutal grip of winter begins to ease in the Twin Cities.  I had three months to prepare for the late June race.

I was living in a part of the city that afforded me easy access to running around Lake of The Isles... a lake then known as Lake Calhoun and even Lake Harriet for extremely long runs.  I probably averaged 40 miles a week with a long run of 15 miles over the course of the lead up.

A co-worker, reporter Dr. Michael Breen told me in March he wanted to run the race as well.  It would be the good doctors first marathon.  He was short on training when he joined me for our only run together leading up to the race in May.  Breen ran step for step with me for 12 miles.  He pushed me all the way and was feeling pretty pumped up about what was to come.  I warned him that 12 miles isn't 26.

I ran no races in preparation for this marathon, probably not the smartest of moves, but I was about as fit as I had been for my 1977 marathon with a little less leg speed.  Saturday June 23rd dawned with perfect weather and nearly 1,300 runners were off.  I had let the local Duluth NBC station know I was running the race.  They actually captured video of me running which I have to do this day.

As for the race I vividly remember three things.  First, I hit mile ten at 65:00.  That was pretty quick for someone hoping to run 2:55 or so.  In fact, I was on 2:50 pace and none the wiser.

Second, shortly after ten miles marathon elite, the late Steve Hoag passed me chatting with a couple of buddies with his arm in a cast.  Steve had finished second to Bill Rodgers at Boston.  Their remarks were like a punch in the gut.  Steve said, we can push it and run 2:35 or take it easy and run 2:45.  I knew I was in a world of shit.

It started catching up with me after 19 miles.  The slow die began but I had banked enough time to break three hours, then the third unforgettable thing rolled up.  I could smell it coming and when I looked to my right, I spotted a woman who had soiled herself, crap running down the length of her right leg.  The stench was undeniable.  I had to back off and let her get a big enough gap so I didn't have to look or smell the running shit can.

I got to 25 miles knowing I had almost no margin of error to break three hours.  I busted a gut, thankfully didn't see the shit girl.  I could see the clock from about 200 yards clicking up to three hours.  I hit the finish in 2:59:50, in 256th place and extremely happy with my effort.

I stood around waiting for Dr. Breen.  I first saw NFL great, Alan Page, a Vikings defensive line man complete his first marathon in 3:57.  Mike never finished the race.  He gave it up at around 22 miles admitting that things began to fall apart at around 16 miles.  He had gone out too fast, overly optimistic about our 12 mile run together.   The marathon is a demanding beast, no matter your relative fitness.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Greatness Gone

It hit me in the heart.  Frank Robinson is dead.  I wasn't an Orioles fan, or the Reds for that matter.  I was and am to some extent, a baseball fan.  Robinson was a superstar when baseball was still America's national past time.

You can read much better articles about why Frank Robinson mattered.  In my estimation he is the second most important African-American to put on a major league uniform, behind only Jackie Robinson.  My heart ache stemmed from my feeling that Robinson never the full respect or due for his incredible career both on and off the field.

Imagine being a 20-year-old breaking into the major leagues in Cincinnati in 1956.  Cincinnati was racist as hell.  What he must have endured making his way to winning Rookie of the Year honors and hitting a then major league record 38 home runs for a rookie.

Just five years later Robinson would lead the Reds, which had been a joke for the better part of 20 years, to a National League pennant taking the league's Most Valuable Player award.  His Reds had the misfortune of playing one of the greatest Yankee teams ever in the World Series and so it goes.

Five years after that Robinson was gone from Cincinnati. I remember reading he was an "old" 30.  He had only hit 33 home runs, drive in 100 runs and hit 296 in 1965. I remember writers calling Robinson a difficult and angry player.  Writers said he was difficult and angry.  Even then as a young boy, the descriptions spoke to me of a proud man, who didn't suffer fools gladly, a proud Black man which made it even worse.

In 1966, old Frank would hit 49 home runs and win the Triple Crown for Baltimore in leading them to a World Series title over my beloved Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Robinson won the American League's Most Valuable Player award becoming the first and only player to win the MVP in both leagues.   He would follow it up with three more trips to the World Series and bring one more crown to Baltimore.

Fittingly he became the game's first Black manager in 1975 and managed four different times over the next 20 years.  Robinson's team's never had the best talent, but they always played better than you expected.  His pride in the game, the drive to win, he willed upon those who played for him.

He was one of my early baseball heroes.  The game owes him more than I can even begin to literate.  A giant among us is gone.

Monday, February 4, 2019

My Marathon Journeys: USTFF 1977

The marathon pulls at anyone who considers themselves a distance running.  Once you've given it a go you begin to think and scheme about how to do another one and run it better than the last.  I went into the spring of 1977 with a goal of running a sub-3 hour marathon.  Given the way I trained, it wasn't a very realistic dream.

I had run consistently through the spring.  I had even put in one ten mile run, that's right, one ten mile run two weeks before the marathon.  But I was in very good shape.  I ran an open mile at a high school track meet about a month before my planned race in Wichita.  The mile in Topeka gave me a lot of confidence.

I ran along in that race with an experienced marathoner, Rex Lane.  Rex had encouraged me to run the Wichita race where he was planning on running 2:45 if not better.  Rex and I raced along together in the mile as we watched Lowell Paul, a member of a world record setting 4 x 880 relay team pull away to a 4:14 mile.  Rex and I split the finish line together in 4:45.  Rex was exceedingly happy to stay stride for stride with me to the finish and I was shocked that I could run under 4:50, much less on a cinder track.

So at the end of May, Rex and I toed the line at the United States Track and Field Federation (USTFF) marathon in Wichita.  USTFF was a poor man's national championships designed mainly to be a thumb in the eye of the  Amateur Athletic Union.  The AAU was the 800 pound gorilla in track and field back then and it was hated by coaches and athletes alike.  The annual meet in Wichita offered world class competition, although our marathon field was mostly first rate collegians.

It promised to be a warm day on a rolling course taking us from Wichita State University into west Wichita and beyond.  I immediately took up with a high school senior excitedly running his first marathon.  We talked and kept each other calm as we clipped along at 6:30 mile pace over the first seven to eight miles.

By mile ten the high school kid was gone and I was in a no man's land between groups of runners.  I was slowing but not significantly.  In fact, as we hit a stretch of gravel road I was passing runners here and there.  My only significant late race memory is hitting the last water table at around 21 miles and thinking it was getting really hot.

The last five miles were a grind, but I knew I was going to break three hours if I didn't completely fold up.  That thought and feeling carried into the gates of the stadium where I circled a half lap of the track, hitting the finish line in 2:57:14.  Much to my surprise there stood Kansas coach Bob Timmons, grinning ear to ear.  He was honestly happy for me and congratulated me on the finish.  It meant the world to me.

Rex had run a couple of minutes under 2:50 and he was shocked to see me. I told him  my time it would be just under three hours or a 3:15 blow up and I think he was betting on the latter.  I was 21st overall out of more than 100 runners.  The race was divided between open runners and collegians.  Since I wasn't running for a college team I was considered open and claimed the third place medal in the open championship.  Yep, I was technically third in the nation at a national championship.

The Wichita race is one of the dozen most satisfying races I have run.  I had run smart, in control and paced myself properly based on my condition.  I had conquered a barrier, three hours, that every marathoner dreamed of and I did it at the age of 21.

Friday, February 1, 2019

My Marathon Journeys: The Kansas Relays 1976

Running a marathon is rarely a completely enjoyable experience.  If you do attempt 26.2 miles in a serious manner you have to put in many long runs and prepare you body for those last very difficult five to six miles.  Your body only stores about two hours worth of energy and lactate builds up in your muscles making your legs hurt like hell.

In 1976 energy boosters like GU didn't exists.  Top flight marathoners often drank defizzed coke to give them sugar and caffeine to carry them through the race.  And water tables were every six miles.  No one thought to carry water bottles with them.

So I lined up for the 1976 Kansas Relays with 150 other souls in even worse shape than the previous year's attempt.  There was no Kirk Duncan to hang onto and I was left to my own devices.  Worse still, the weather was terrible.  It was a wet, windy day which featured a howling wind directly out of the north. 

I could feel the windy helping me along as I headed south toward Vinland.  I was running almost the exact same pace as I did the year before but the effort wasn't as easy.  My mind began to drift back to the stadium.  The marathon had started at 7:30 a.m.  I knew that 11 a.m. Olympic marathon champion would be taking the track in the 5,000 meters against Colorado's Ted Castenada.  I knew it would be an entertaining race and I knew that I wouldn't be hitting the stadium in three hours.

I then started thinking about what the run back into Lawrence would be like.  It would be doubly brutal back through the hills that figured prominently from mile 13 to mile 20.  And that would back to the stadium would be into a steady 15 to 20 mile per hour gale.  

I had hedged my bets the morning of the race asking my mother to go to the halfway point in Vinland.  It was one of the best decisions I had ever made.  I was elated to see her sitting there in her red Ford at the turnaround and I walked over to the car.  She was in shock.  I had run the half in 1:31 and she remarked at how good and easy I looked.  I told her there was no way I would survive the nasty winds back into town.

I never regretted the ride home, the shower and the trip to the stadium to watch Shorter bury Castenada.  I have quit only a couple of races on purpose in my life and this is the only time I was actually happy about doing it.  It remains the only marathon that I did not finish.