Friday, August 11, 2006

The Folly of Youth...

One of the things I enjoy most about what I do is the broad range of interesting and eclectic characters I encounter on a daily basis. Truly, runners are a fascinating breed. However, the most interesting character I encountered recently wasn't a runner at all despite the fact that he may have wanted to be.

I received a phone call a few weeks ago towards the end of an exhausting day. I didn't recognize the number, but for whatever reason I still answered the phone. The man's name was Nathan and he was calling me on behalf of his son, Max.

I was tired, frazzled, and looking for a parking spot. Needless to say, I wasn't exactly fully engaged. Nathan started talking about the Coastal Trail and Max's desire to run the Coastal Trail from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.

I immediately thought something was wrong with the connection. I couldn't possibly have heard Nathan correctly. Confused, I asked Nathan a few cursory questions about Max's training.

'What's the farthest distance he's ever run?'

'Oh...about 6 miles.'

'How many times a week does he run?'

'2-3 times a week.'

' far does he run?'

'About 3 miles.'

'Well...I've got to tell you...this is one of the worst ideas I've heard in a long time, Nathan. The only person on the planet who might contemplate something like this is Dean Karnazes. A few other ultrarunners might as well, but Max is in no shape to attempt something like this.'

'So...when he's out on the trail, what's the plan? Is he going to run a few miles and just pitch a tent somewhere?'

'Yes...or he might stay at a hostel or with some friends.'

Absurd is one adjective that came to mind as I spoke with Nathan. Extraordinarily dangerous was another. At this juncture, Nathan wanted me to talk to his son. I told him I couldn't talk to his son right now, but if he and his son wanted to meet for coffee tomorrow evening we could chat then.

I sent Nathan a follow up email later that evening and told Nathan that if his son was interested in running, he'd probably be much better served by signing up for the half marathon training program I was launching. The training would be thoughtful, progressive, and systematic. To boot, there would be minimal chance of serious injury (or death!)

The next evening as I was wrapping up my workout with my half marathon group, I saw an older man with a kid who appeared to be about 19 or 20. I knew right away it was Nathan and Max. We segued to a coffee shop to discuss what Max was going to attempt to do in 2 days!

I spent a considerable amount of time talking about how long it takes to train for a marathon, the physiological adaptations that have to occur in order for your body to attempt something like this, the time required for your body to heal/recover after a run, and how his body just simply isn't adapted to this kind of activity right now!

I really was taken aback by the seeming lack of respect Max seemed to have not only for his own body, but for the work that runners have to do to get into the kind of shape to run long distances. Granted, he was only 20 years old and clearly swimming in a sea of youthful invincibility.

Above and beyond attempting to explain the high level physiology of running, I told Max about my own experiences as a runner and the kinds of injuries I had incurred just from normal training runs and I've been doing this for over 15 years.

Max seemed to comprehend what I was saying, but I got the distinct impression that he was still going to try to do this anyway. I left the table hoping that I had managed to reach Max somehow and he would spare himself the inevitable physical pain/discomfort that awaited him on the coastal trail.

The following week, I noticed that Max had not signed up for my half marathon training program and could only assume that he was stranded out on the Coastal Trail somewhere. It was a few weeks later that I would find out exactly what happened to Max.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Students On The Run

One of the joys of being a 'man of leisure' is the incredible amount of flexibility I have in my schedule. I moonlight as a film critic and this frequently allows me to see 'advance' screenings of films during the light of day while most are shackled to their cubes.

I've recently been doing press coverage for the 49th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival. One of the more inspiring films I saw recently was Students On The Run. This documentary takes a fascinating look at a volunteer based running program (Students On The Run-SRO) for students in Oakland.

The Students Run Oakland(SRO) program trains any interested high school student to run the Los Angeles Marathon. The vast majority of the kids who participate in the program come from tough neighborhoods, tough families, or tough circumstances. Additionally, many of these kids attend grossly underfunded public schools.

While the kids are really the 'stars' of Students On The Run, Coach Alphonzo Jackson is arguably a co-star. I vividly recall meeting Alphonzo several years ago while training for my first marathon with TNT. It was a bright, sunny Saturday morning in the East Bay. Alphonzo had a broad smile on his face as he ardently barked at us, 'NO WIMPS!' It was a simple, but effective message. Behind that tough exterior is a man who is sensitive, empathic, and genuinely concerned about his community and the people who live there.

This comes across clearly in Students On The Run. Many of these kids are on the fringe with a real dearth of positive influences and little to inspire them that 'anything is possible'. As Alphonzo says to his young runners, 'You guys have done something out of the ordinary, so that makes you extraordinary'. What a wonderful and inspiring message to send.

Many who complete a marathon walk away with the sense that they did something extraordinary and it's not uncommon to see people chase even more daunting goals/dreams passionately as a result of their journey to 26.2. But, for kids who come from broken homes, live in neighborhoods where violence is a constant, and graduating high school without getting shot is a stretch, Alphonzo's message seems that much more powerful.

Independent of the positive and life affirming message that a film like Students On The Run sends, it also makes one reflect on the current state of physical education in public schools. So many physical education programs are disappearing in public schools during a time in which childhood obesity is at an all time high. There's a higher probability that a kid is going to play Grand Theft Auto than run a mile (let alone a marathon.

As if this isn't bad enough, you have many school cafeterias that are partnering with 'Pizza Hut', 'McDonalds', and other huge fast food chains to provide meals for these same kids! Fortunately, students have high quality beverages like Coke and Sprite to wash down their Big Macs and pizza as soft drink machines are ubiquitous at pretty much every public high school and middle school.

You look at a program like Students Run Oakland and wonder why more programs such as these aren't available to kids all over the country. Isn't it infinitely easier to teach the benefits of a healthy lifestyle at an early age rather than decades later when one has already adopted a sedentary and unhealthy lifestyle?

I was shocked last fall when I did some high school coaching at Gateway in San Francisco. The kids were great, but I was APPALLED at the kind of shape they were in! Running a 1/2 mile had them gasping for breath and claiming they were dehydrated. It wasn't that long ago that I was running for my high school cross country team. We ran 3 miles solid the very first day of practice without any water or gatorade! Needless to say, I had to adjust my expectations.

There's no easy solution, but programs like Students Run Oakland are clearly a step in the right direction.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Next PRE?

One of the most vexing conundrums the U.S. running community faces is a real lack of so called 'stars'. Steve Prefontaine was the only U.S. runner that truly fell into this category. Not only was Pre exceptionally gifted, but he was an iconoclastic personality. Pre directly confronted the AAU, he showed his pain when he ran, and he was almost never judicious in his choice of words. It was Pre's combination of exceptional talent, arrogance, and individuality that defined him and set him apart. Nike is still milking the Pre mystique more than 30 years after his death! Unquestionably, Pre was a remarkable talent, but why has the next Pre yet to materialize?

Think about some of the other sports 'stars' for a minute. When people think of U.S. tennis, they often think of 'personalities' (a thinly veiled euphemism for 'stars'). People think of Jimmy Connors, a man who engaged his audience in ways that few (if any) ever have. Connors effectively used the audience in the 1991 U.S. Open to drive his 38 year old body to the semifinals. John McEnroe similarly engaged (and often enraged) his audience. McEnroe's talent was only matched by his often embarrassing displays of anger. Yet..we still remember him as one of the greats. Ironically, one of the best U.S. players ever Pete Sampras was often criticized for his lack of outward displays of passion, competitiveness, and intensity.

So, what do Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe have to do with U.S. running and Steve Prefontaine? A lot, actually. Pre loved his fans and they adored him. The stands at Hayward Field would shake when Pre hit the track. Rather than stoically going about his business, Pre made a point of engaging with his fans. He knew that his race wasn't just a competition, it was a 'performance'. These fans were there to see him perform. Pre never did anything to conceal his pain, fatigue, and discomfort. He let it all hang out and the fans loved him for it. They cheered him on and these cheers often acted as fuel for Pre to push a bit harder and the fans would cheer even harder. It was a symbiotic relationship. In much the same way that someone like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, or even Terrell Owens engages with the crowd. While most of us will never be professional athletes, Pre (and the aforementioned athletes) allow us an opportunity to experience their pain and elation vicariously.

Who at the elite level in the U.S. has that unique combination of charismatic personality and exceptional talent? Arguably, no one. With Meb Keflezghi's silver medal performance in the 2004 Olympic marathon and Deena Kastor's bronze in the women's event, the U.S. achieved a modicum of credibility at the global level in distance running. Likewise, Alan Culpepper and a few other distance runners are frequently in the top 10-20 in the big marathons, but with the exception of Meb and Deena, there are very few U.S. runners positioned to threaten a podium finish.

This is a large part of the problem. The talent may very well be there, but the infrastructure to foster and grow the talent is largely absent (with the exception of Nike's 'Oregon Project' and a few others in the same vein). In stark contrast, Kenya has high altitude camps catered specifically towards their most talented harriers. Those who spend time in these camps are exclusively focused on training and racing. With few exceptions, there is nothing like this in the U.S.

Above and beyond developing talent, is the question of 'personality' or the 'IT' factor. Most runners appear stoic when they're running 26.2 miles. Granted, in the last few miles fatigue and pain may bubble to the surface, but to an outsider, it's understandable how it might 'appear' that a runner isn't necessarily engaged in a mighty internal battle.

Above and beyond the typical lack of externalization of this inner battle is the fact that most races (13.1 miles and above) are not conducive to taking place in stadiums. Running simply is not the most spectator friendly sport. Even if a runner has the talent and personality of a Steve Prefontaine, there are few opportunities to engage with an audience during the course of a half marathon or marathon.

So, where will the next Pre come from? Will there EVER be a U.S. runner that has the unique combination of exceptional talent and personality that will remind us of him? I don't see it happening anytime in the near future, but there is hope and there are signs that it could happen. An analogous situation happened for men's soccer in the U.S. not too long ago.

In 1994, the U.S. hosted the World Cup. Fortunately, the U.S. managed to qualify and remarkably made it out of the first round before falling valiantly to an exceptional Brazilian team. Since then, a professional soccer league was formed in the U.S. While this league has definitely struggled and some of the teams have folded, the league has provided an avenue for post-collegiate and semi-professional players to develop their skills and compete at a quasi-professional level. The MSL has even managed to lure some exceptional foreign players into the league.

Fast forward to this year's World Cup and arguably we're looking at the strongest U.S. team in decades. Was this happenstance? I would argue that it was the U.S.'s performance in 1994 and the subsequent creation of the MSL that ENABLED fledgling talent to take their abilities to the next level. Granted, we're still YEARS away from winning a World Cup and we don't have a Pele (but we do have Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu!), but we're on the right track!

Why couldn't something comparable be done with running? An amateur or professional running 'league' that has a team in a number of major cities. Each event could be hosted at a stadium and comprised of a number of events: 800M, 1600M, 3200M, 5000M, 10000M, etc. Post-collegiate runners who are not yet at the elite level could feed into this league and develop their skills for a few years and pay their bills. I have to imagine that over time something like this would help many runners get to the next level.

By hosting these events at local stadiums running becomes more conducive to spectating. Locals could cheer on their teams from the comfort of the stands with their beer and sausage in hand. Given the close confines of a stadium, this would also provide an opportunity for athletes to connect with their fans.

A typical season might run during the summer (June-August). Similar to all other professional sports, a certain number of teams would make the 'playoffs' based on team performance throughout the season.'s a pipedream, but as a passionate runner and someone who believes running contains at least as much human drama as baseball, it pains me that there is nothing like this out there.

While the idea of a running league may be farfetched, in order for the U.S. to produce a Pre (or Pre-wannabe), something has to change. The creation of a running league would seem to address at least some of these issues or at least create more interest in the sport. If Nike's serious about finding the next Pre, they need to do something more than simply create a clothing line in Pre's honor.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Crash and Burn...

In an ideal world all of the training and hard work we do day to day, week to week, and month to month results in a stellar race day performance. Part of the beauty of running is that oftentimes we get out of it what we put in. But, what happens when race day performance falls short of our expectations?

I found myself in such a position not too long ago when I had a lackluster performance at the Kaiser Half Marathon. I had done some very high quality training and felt primed for an excellent race. I was well hydrated, well rested, and felt sharp as I toed the line.

My pacing was spot on for the first few miles, but it became apparent quickly that things were awry for reasons I can't quite comprehend. About four miles in I started to feel a bit fatigued. This was definitely not a good sign and I was disconcerted, but I chose to try to ignore it and soldier on.

My pace dropped a bit for miles 5 and 6. I fought to get back on pace the next few miles. I eventually found myself on the Great Highway at mile 8 and had somehow managed to maintain my target pacing, but my legs just felt shot. Heavy, lethargic, and spent, my pacing dropped precipitously and I realized I was perilously close to the wall....a feeling I had not experienced in any distance shorter than 26.2 miles.

Frustrated, I contemplated packing it in entirely as I knew the stars simply weren't aligning. I finally settled on just gutting out the remainder of the race and treating it as a glorified training run. While I take some solace in the fact that I exhibited enough mental toughness to finish, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't extremely disappointed with the way things went.

With a couple months left before 1 of 2 big marathons this year, I found myself struggling with the results of this half marathon. I worked so hard...only to come up short. Was my training flawed? Was there something wrong with my diet? Did I do something to piss off the running gods?

Being of an overly analytical bent, numerous questions, doubts, and anxieties swirled about. I found myself in the weeks following this race struggling to motivate for my workouts. 'What was the point of this hard work, if the results aren't there?' I couldn't believe I was thinking this! I have always been passionate about the sport and I have three pins above my desk from my surgery several years ago that serve as a constant reminder that it is a gift we can run at all!

It was time to do something different. I went down to the Great Highway on a sunny day and just simply ran. I tried to keep my gaze and thoughts fixated on the water, the view, the air, and just being in the moment.

Rather than focusing on maintaining a certain pace, focusing on my stride, thinking of my breathing, I tried to remind myself of exactly WHY I was doing this. I do it for those moments you can barely explain to a non-runner. I do it for those moments when I feel like a child, when I feel like I'm flying, and when I feel liberated from the stresses and anxieties of daily life.

After this run, it occurred to me that I had been talking about doing yoga for well over six months. Why hadn't I acted on this urge? I finally signed up and had my first session. I struggled to maintain most of the poses. But, I finished the session, albeit humbled and drenched in sweat.

The next morning I felt some soreness and muscle fatigue from the demands of the previous day's session. But, there was a concurrent strength I felt that wasn't there previously and with it the realization that the path to achieving our goals/dreams isn't always clear and the bumps in the road may act as catalysts for us to pursue things we might not otherwise pursue.

I'm not sure what the next few months of training will look like, but I want to not only get the miles and the workouts in that I need, but remain focused on the joy and pleasure the sport has always given me. Losing this would be worse than any lackluster race day performance.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Deep Thoughts...

Someone recently asked me what I think about when I'm running. It's a question I hadn't been posed before and it occurred to me that much of the time it is thinking that I specifically try to avoid when I'm out on the road. I've often described running as my form of meditation and in the same way that meditation seeks to clear and quiet the mind, I frequently seek the same thing when I run.

I often try to focus on my breathing, my turnover , etc. Most of the energy I'm not spending on moving is spent on tuning into the messages my body is sending me. It's rare that I'm ever mulling over personal problems, working through issues, or solving quandaries while out on the road.

While it's frequently the case that I'm not pondering or contemplating much when I'm out on the road (other than how my body is feeling), there certainly are cases when I deviate from this. Perhaps the best example of this occurs when I'm particularly fatigued and fighting to keep it together. Having a vivid imagination often proves to be quite an asset. I will sometimes imagine that I'm in the midst of a particularly competitive race and close to winning or running a PR.

This technique has helped me on numerous occasions push through runs that I otherwise would have cut short. I even go so far as to imagine commentators commenting on the progression of the race, the strength of the field, etc. It sounds a bit crazy even as I write this, but it has worked and I would encourage anyone to try it the next time their energy is waning. It's not too different from what we did as children imagining ourselves pitching in the 7th game of the World Series in the bottom of the ninth inning with everything on the line.

The other technique I've used before is to remind myself that I've endured worse. If I'm feeling like I'm ready to pack it in, I remind myself of the time I ran a 20 miler and my legs were chafed so badly they were bleeding. I remind myself of the time I ran 15 miles through frigid wind and hail. Certainly there have been experiences in our lives independent of running that have been more painful than ANY long run. I point to these experiences and remind myself of what I AM capable of overcoming. This technique often provides me with that second wind I need to keep things going.

But, the most gratifying moments out on the road occur when my mind is devoid of any real substantive thought and it truly feels like I am just existing in the moment. There is something profoundly peaceful about these moments. As I've said to some of my clients, it's unfortunate that humans were not born with the gift of flight, but we can run and sometimess when you do it right, it feels like you're flying.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Hazy Shade of Winter...

I am fortunate enough to live in San Francisco where even the worst weather would still be considered more than tolerable by most. The weather can rarely be considered an excuse for not running in the Bay Area.

Most recently San Francisco has been besieged by a wave of pretty unpleasant storms making it nigh on impossible to run outside...or at the very least markedly unpleasant to attempt it. Despite this, I have felt a bit guilty in not braving the elements.

This somewhat irrational guilt stems from a childhood spent in Kansas. I think it speaks volumes that when Kansas was first being settled the land was being given away for nothing. The summers are miserably hot and humid and the winters are typically cold, windy, gray, and depressing.

Truly, anyone suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder should steer clear of Kansas during the winter. Fortunately, there were about two wonderful weeks out of the year during the fall that were actually conducive to being outside.

At any rate, I endured more than my fair share of miserable runs due to the challenging conditions. I vividly recall foolishly attempting to tackle an 'easy' five miler in the middle of the day in July. The folly of youth. The sun was blazing hot and the humidity was akin to a steam cooker. I got about two miles into the run before I began to forget my own name.

A mile or so later, I started to get dizzy and light headed. Fortunately, I had just barely enough sense to realize that perhaps it would be in my best interests to pull the plug on this run. I walked the rest of the way home in an overheated stupor.

As if this experience wasn't bad enough, a few months later (during the bleakest period of winter), I met a friend for a 15 mile long run. We were both sporting runnning tights, long sleeve shirts, a jacket, gloves, etc. We both bore a striking resemblance to Nanook of the North.

The weather wasn't too bad initially. Some light snow flurries were punctuated by the occasional blast of frigid wind to lively things up. Fortunately, the wind was at our backs when we started.

Admittedly, we were pretty goddamned cold the first five miles, but as we approached the halfway point (7.5 miles), we managed to work up a bit of a sweat. This would prove to be the beginning of the end.

Upon turning around, the wind seemed to evolve from occasional blasts to an unrelenting howl. The flurries matriculated to sheets of ice pellets. What little sweat was on our bodies instantaneously froze. I began to wonder if this was similar to what Robert Shackleton experienced while trying to traverse the South Pole.

We were miserable and had another 7.5 miles to go. As we attempted to get through the first mile, little pieces of ice began to stick to my eyelashes reducing visibility significantly. Every time I blinked, my eyelashes would stick together further exacerbating an already difficult situation.

Despite my desire to emulate Robert Shackleton and persevere despite all obstacles, we ultimately decided to bag out on the run at a nearby fire station and call my friend's mom for a ride home. While we waited, the two of us feverishly tried to get some feeling back in our hands. Eventually, I used the restroom and tried to take my ski headband off. This would prove to be quite an ordeal as the headband had been saturated with sweat and subsequently frozen.

The headband was as stiff as a piece of cardboard. After melting some of the frozen sweat, I was eventually able to get the headband off. Likewise, the pieces of ice stuck in my eyelashes had melted giving the appearance that I had been sobbing uncontrollably. Who knows...maybe there were some tears of joy for having survived such a miserable ordeal.

OK, so I'm dramatizing here just a bit. We weren't stranded in the South Pole for 18 months and were never in any real danger per se. But, whenever I find myself cursing the fates for unleashing a hellacious rainstorm or a particularly strong gust of wind, I recall a few of my runs from Kansas and remember how much worse it could be.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Hecklers be damned!

Few would argue that training for a marathon is non-trivial. Mental toughness is required to roll your sorry ass out of bed at 6AM to run in the dark when it's windy, cold, and rainy. This is to say nothing of the fortitude required to run through the almost inevitable fatigue and discomfort that is part and parcel of the sport.

Compounding the inherent challenges in training for 26.2 miles of self flagellation is the recent rise of heckling. While professional athletes deal with hecklers on a routine basis, heckling has largely been a non-issue for the amateur athlete.

Most recently it's been some knucklehead driving by yelling, 'Run, Forrest, Run!' It's never been clear to me exactly what the purpose is of this brand of heckling. Is it supposed to be funny? Is the idea to distract the runner in the hopes that he/she will stumble and fall?

It's truly a mystery to me. But, I have had more than my fair share of dark, retaliatory fantasies. These fantasies run the gamut from simply giving the verbal assailants the finger to spitting on their car while running by.

Recently, one of my friends told me a story of a fellow runner who exacted a brilliant revenge on some obnoxious hecklers. Said hecklers were actually following this runner hurling various drunken insults. The runner came to a crosswalk and the car full of hecklers of course pulled into the crosswalk intentionally blocking his path. Undeterrred, the runner merely jumped on the hood of their car and simply continued running and in the process dented the hood of their car.

Fortunately, this runner was fast and entered a narrow fire road after running through the crosswalk. The drunken troglodytes certainly couldn't follow him in their car and none of them were fast (or sober) enough to catch him.

Granted, indulging one's retaliatory impulses is not something I would necessarily condone as it's hard to know for sure if you're dealing with drunk losers or some other more disturbed brand of heckler who may conveniently unholster his piece and decide runner hunting season has commenced.

That being said, there should be some kind of recourse. It's time for the heckled to rise up against the hecklers! Such indignities will no longer be tolerated! I am currently in the midst of assembling the contents of the 'anti-heckler' pack. Proposed contents for Marathon Matt's Anti-Heckler Pack include: Mace (for the mildly threatening heckler), Tink's No.10 Stink Skunk Scent (for the merely obnoxious heckler) (, and Advanced Taser Gun (for the truly threatening heckler) ( I'm certainly open to any suggestions.