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Run Long and Healthy

02/20/2018

By Amby Burfoot

In the mid-1960s, Jeff Galloway and I were college teammates at tiny Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Once or twice a year we ran an intense interval workout side by side: 40 x 400 meters in 75 seconds with a 30-second jog. Now, more than 50 years later and separated by 1000 miles, we find ourselves once again training as if tethered together. Only this time, we’re both doing run:walk workouts.

The evolution of one’s personal training is a crucial subject that hasn’t been explored fully. Most of us wish to be “lifetime runners.” But what’s the best way to achieve that goal? Surely we must change and adapt. But how?

No one knows for sure. I can only tell you what has worked for me, from my first high school runs, to my win in the 1968 Boston Marathon, to my aim this spring to finish Boston (at age 71) 50 years after that victory. I hope you’ll find some ideas you can incorporate into your own lifetime of running.

High school: I grew up the son of a YMCA director, and loved all the bigtime American sports, especially baseball and basketball. In my final year of Babe Ruth ball, I won the batting championship and the Good Sportsmanship award (shhh, I’m a bit embarrassed by that one). In 10th grade, I made the JV basketball squad, but was the worst  player on a mediocre team.

One afternoon, our coach got so mad that he told us to go run the cross-country course as punishment. To my surprise, I finished far ahead of my teammates. Having more brains than basketball talent, I soon decided to switch sports.

The next September I joined the cross-country team, coached by diminutive John J. Kelley--winner of the 1957 Boston Marathon, twice an Olympic marathoner, and eight times winner of the national marathon championships. More importantly, he was the smartest, most engaging, gallmost forward-thinking man I have ever known. Way back then, Kel was already an organic gardener who rode his bicycle to school rather than driving a car, and believed in the simple joys of running and hiking in green spaces.

While other coaches forced their athletes to attempt Jim Ryun’s track workouts, Kelley led us on gentle romps through rolling parklands, dense woods, and along the sandy shores of Long Island Sound. My final year in high school, I ran roughly 35 miles a week, and recorded a best 2-mile track time of 9:39--strong but not superlative.

Lessons: When starting to run, emphasize the sport’s connection to the natural environment and to the body’s enhanced strength and fitness. Seek variety and pleasure over monotony and duress.

BurfootCollege: My first two years in college, I increased my mileage to about 70 miles a week. Most of the time, I ran 6- to 10-mile afternoon workouts with Jeff Galloway. I grew stronger, and won many cross-country meets, but achieved nothing noteworthy.

My last two years at Wesleyan, I added regular morning runs of 5 to 8 miles, which pushed my weekly totals above 100 miles a week--often to about 120. I chuckle to think that I attended college during the era of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll,” but somehow missed out. On the other hand, I placed sixth in the NCAA Cross-Country Championships in 1966 and 1967. The guys ahead of me all attended major running powerhouses.

After the ‘67 cross-country season, I ran nothing but slow road workouts (in cold, snow, and slush) for six weeks, then stunned myself with a mid-January indoor 2-mile in 8:45. Now I wanted to be a track star! I added speed work to my regimen, and got slower every week. By the time of the NCAA indoor, I could barely manage a 9:09. Up front, Jim Ryun outkicked Gerry Lindgren.

In mid-March, 1968, I covered 350 miles in two weeks at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, as far south as Wesleyan could afford for a spring trip. Somehow I survived. Two weeks later, I realized I was running better and more easily than ever in my life. I hit a period of magical “flow” and began thinking I might win the Boston Marathon. (But I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t that stupid.)

A month after Boston, I won the 3-mile and steeplechase at the New England Collegiate Championships at Boston College. I entered the steeple because I figured it would be my only lifetime opportunity, and I wanted to experience the bizarre-looking event. The next day, I couldn’t lift my leg out of bed. I had pulled a hurdling muscle in my butt.

I still had three months to rest and repair before the 1968 Olympic Marathon Trials in Alamosa, Colorado. Unfortunately, I was too obsessed to do either. As a result, the butt injury didn’t heal, and I had to drop out of the Trials race. Call me stupid: I used much harsher terms on myself.

Lessons: Build mileage steadily over years, shooting for personal bests whenever you can. Run most workouts at a moderate pace. Do occasional speed work but not too much, and don’t try the steeplechase.

amby_horizontal_narragansettMidlife: Midlife covers many years when a lot of things happen. My life followed the norm. I had several children and took on more job responsibilities, eventually becoming executive editor at Runner’s World. Almost overnight, I chose to reduce my training from 100 miles a week to 25. I fit my runs around everything else in my life instead of vice versa.

Friends warned that I would hate being slow--a midpacker. The opposite proved true. I enjoyed running for fun and recreation rather than pressuring myself to chase fast times. Every five years, I entered the Boston Marathon again, hoping only for a respectable finish time. In my early 30s, this meant 2:40 or so. A quarter century later, it was closer to 4:00.

Most importantly I never stopped running. Research increasingly indicates that midlife is when we build a strong foundation for good health in later life.

Lessons: When life gets busy, adapt your running routine, but don’t quit. As you get older and slower, running becomes more important to your wellness. Lower your expectations and your caloric intake (the average American gains 1.5 pounds per year in midlife, which can really add up over 30 years), and keep hitting the road.

60s and up: In my late 50s, my job at RW changed, leaving me with fewer responsibilities. I used the extra time to train myself back into decent shape, though I only increased my weekly mileage a small amount--to 30 or 35 miles. I also realized that I didn’t have to carbo-load every day, and gradually lost 10 unnecessary pounds. This left me at 10 pounds over my 1968 weight.

Over a half-dozen years, I lowered my half-marathon time from 1:35 to 1:27 or so, and ran well in age-group cross-country races. This period was fun, but I knew it wouldn’t go on forever. In the last 7 or 8 years, my half-marathon time has risen to 1:47. As far as I can tell, we all reach a point where we get slower at a faster rate. I have a few choice words to describe this phenomenon, but don’t think I should use them in an RRCA family newsletter.

Screen Shot 2018-02-20 at 3.10.26 PMNonetheless, I’ve happily finished the last five Boston Marathons in 4:15 to 4:20, and hope to do the same on April 16. In each of those Bostons, I’ve run 4 minutes and walked one minute from the very beginning in Hopkinton. The run:walk system popularized by Jeff Galloway has proved a revelation to me.

The thing I like best is the flexibility. I can go 4:1 on my long runs and marathon races, but I also use run:walk for speedwork. Some days I’ll finish a 5- or 6-miler with several miles of 2:1 running at my 10K pace for the 2 minute runs. On other occasions, I might even run 30:90 (seconds), a real speed session. I never get bored because there are so many different options.

I’m not sure I’ll still be running Boston in 5 or 10 years, but if I am, I will certainly have transitioned to 3:1 or 2:1 to cover the distance. Why not? The goal is to stay involved and keep moving. That’s all the matters now.

In addition to 4 runs a week, I go to a health club on my nonrunning days. There, I ride a recumbent bike gently for an hour (while reading newspapers, magazines, and journals), and do a variety of moderate-resistance strength exercises for about 20 minutes.

Lessons: The retirement years can add vigor to your running. Yes, you’ll get slower, but there are many new vistas to explore, including age-group competition. When it comes to training, run:walk is a powerful and flexible tool. It represents a lifetime training system that you can adjust to your age, motivation, fitness and health.

Amby Burfoot’s newest book, Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy, Lifetime Running will be published on March 27 and available on Amazon.com in hardcover or Kindle.

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