Saturday, February 7, 2009

Racing blindly with Dow Jones

I have an odd theory regarding the success of distance running and of those most successful at it: your economy has an inverse relationship with your success at running long and fast. Think about it. If you're out of work, not only do you have more time to run, but you just might need more time on the roads to alleviate the anxiety associated with being unemployed.

Been there -- done that.

On a championship level, the last few years have seen some breakthrough performances by American runners ranging from Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, and Deena Kastor in the marathon, to Shalane Flanagan and Alan Webb in the middle distances. By all reasonable accounts, American distance running has been more competitive on the world's stage over the past few years than it has been since ... the last time the U.S. economy was in a recession! The economy is sliding downward as fast as many people's marathon PR's.

Such was also the case in the late 1970's, when OPEC held a stranglehold on the price of oil (sound familiar?) and President Carter tried to promote the use of alternative energy to the extent that he had solar panels installed on the White House roof (Reagan took them down). Jobs were scarce, inflation was raising, and the running boom, spurred by performances from Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Mary Decker, and Joan Benoit, was expanding fast and furiously.

Running, seemingly overnight, had gone mainstream. Road races were being broadcast on TV. Michael Douglas did a movie called Running that was unfortunately forgettable. Jim Fixx had the best selling book in the world with his Complete Book of Running, and I, aware of the price of gasoline approaching one-dollar-a-gallon but too young and relatively secure in my middle class family's home to worry about it, witnessed swelling numbers of people standing in the street at the start of a simultaneously growing number of road races throughout greater Boston and throughout the country.
College graduates were not automatically advancing to the Fortune 500 the next day in 1979, and so I noticed them taking to the road. I only had my paper route and my homework to worry about, and many of them were running to keep themselves occupied while waiting within the green rooms of their stalled careers, but we were all starting to run a lot of miles each week, and when Sunday came, and the starter's pistol rang, for a few minutes nothing else mattered except getting to the finish line fast. Preferably faster than you, but above all, faster than one ran the month before at the same 10K distance. It was the ecstasy of intensity. Available every week for a nominal, tax-deductable fee to the charitable cause of the day. Was it a mass act of 'self discovery'? My experiences suggest to me that it was a mass act of going-for-it! The first running boom was made fertile in a populus wound from capital retrograde, but not made personally sluggish by it. On the contrary, the boom trained many in conquering all kinds of life's hills.

Over the next ten years, from 1979 through the last in a series of stubborn hip injuries and stress fractures in 1989, I ran 40 to 60 miles most weeks, and occasionally ran over 100 miles-a-week. It's not my intention to bore anyone with my autobiography here, so I won't, but I am proud of the following PR's that I collected in that period. The immediate future of this blog will explain in more detail how I got myself to the PR's I achieved. I will also try to explain how my early inability to be more flexible in my training likely kept me from achieving much better times. Here are a few of them:

1 mile: 4:29.3

5K: 15:33

10K: 32:44

10 miles: 55:11

13.1 miles: 1:15:11

Marathon: 2:46:33

The 80's eventually became economically prosperous, if not culturally polarizing, and furthermore, Wall Street seemingly soared through the 90's. Is it a coincidence that U.S. distance running receded internationally during much of this same period? I dunno. I do know that as my own careers in radio and law enforcement took more of my time in this period, that ultimately my running took on a lesser degree of importance. It took a few more years for me to learn to balance my life more consistently. I will not try to capture that struggle in one line or posting, but I'm sure the topic will be the focus of upcoming blog entries. Like Einstein said, "life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving." So I will try to keep moving more this year, literally and otherwise.
Next time: The Bill Rodgers Running Center School of Running

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