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home > community > viewpoint > it was twenty years ago today

It was Twenty Years Ago Today
A few years ago at the Marine Corps Marathon pre-race pasta dinner, I had the chance to deliver a motivational talk. During the speech, I asked how many were running in their first marathon. Over fifty percent of those in attendance raised their hands. I was stunned to realize how many new runners were coming into the sport regularly. With each passing year, it becomes a little harder to remember when I was a newbie, trying to figure out what this running thing was all about. As a matter of fact, it was in August of 1976 that I undertook a " running program". 20 years later, that program has turned into lifelong affair, sometimes passionate, sometimes acrimonious, but almost always interesting.

  
It was Twenty Years Ago Today

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By Don Allison
Posted Thursday, 8 August, 1996

A few years ago at the Marine Corps Marathon pre-race pasta dinner, I had the chance to deliver a motivational talk. During the speech, I asked how many were running in their first marathon. Over fifty percent of those in attendance raised their hands. I was stunned to realize how many new runners were coming into the sport regularly. With each passing year, it becomes a little harder to remember when I was a newbie, trying to figure out what this running thing was all about. As a matter of fact, it was in August of 1976 that I undertook a " running program". 20 years later, that program has turned into lifelong affair, sometimes passionate, sometimes acrimonious, but almost always interesting.

As we all know, it takes a spark to get into running, at least seriously enough to get out often enough to achieve a significant training effect. I was in college in the early to mid 70's, Villanova University, ironically enough one of the top running schools in the USA. That had little meaning to me however, as up to that point my running history consisted of 600 yard runs in elementary school and required laps for gym and high school baseball. Like most non-running youth, I considered running real drudgery. As a sports fan, I followed running in the Olympics and The Boston Marathon, but in a very casual manner. I remember hearing that a guy from Newington named Will Rodgers had won Boston, but the big names in distance running to me were Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter, and Steve Prefontaine, who died tragicly in 1975. I can remember playing in a pick-up basketball game near my house one summer and watching this one guy running laps 'round and 'round the school yard. The man was running a solid pace, probably seven minutes per mile. To me, it was incomprehensible that someone could run so long without stopping.

During the summer after my junior year in college, I landed a construction job at a building site of a future shopping mall. As most of my work mates were unsociable, I spent each lunch hour alone reading under a shady tree. I happened to buy the book " Aerobics " by Dr. Ken Cooper, and spent many lunch hours reading about the benefits of extended physical exercise. Under Cooper's aerobic " point system ", you earned a certain number of points for each workout. Cooper suggested running a 12 minute test run to gauge your current state of aerobic fitness. Once determined, you could aim for running or cycling or swimming enough each week to earn as many points as possible. This information appealed to my mathematical mind. Thus armed with information, I set out to go to a track and take this 12 minute test.

It so happened that the Olympic Marathon in 1976 was held on July 31st of that year, in Montreal. I watched that race with fascination, realizing how far advanced these athletes were over Dr. Cooper's minimal aerobic standard of 30 points per week. This equates to six eight minute miles per week, which by the way seemed like quite a lot to me at the time. That the Olympic marathoners were running 26 miles at one time at five minutes per mile blew my mind. I was really intrigued then to find out how far I could go with my own running " program". I knew no other " runners" , so my only points of reference were the book and the Olympic Marathon.

So off I went on August 1st, 1976 to the local high school track in West Hartford, CT. Wearing standard issue gym shorts, a T-shirt and high top basketball sneakers and armed with an analog watch with a sweeping second hand, I ran those 12 minutes around the track as if my life depended upon it. In a way I suppose it did. As best as I can recall, I completed approximately seven laps, 1 3/4 miles. I had no idea whether this distance at a 7 minute per mile pace was good or bad. I was completely winded, my lungs burning, but recovered quickly and otherwise felt fine. Getting in " better shape " was really just a secondary concern. My primary goal was to rack up those 30 aerobic points per week, in which case I would be in the top echelon of athletics, according to Dr. Cooper. In todays's day and age of media saturation, to be such a state of ignorance about the benefits of running would be almost impossible. But this was the mid 70's folks, and things really were different back then.

For the next few weeks, I continued my on and off 12 minutes runs at the track, trying to improve the distance covered. One day during a visit to the Connecticut shore with my girlfriend, I decided to go for a run from her folk's cottage. I went out for six minutes and turned for home, thus completing my first ever " road run. ". Soon enough I was off for my senior year at Villanova, where I continued my track and occasional road runs, never more than three miles at a time. Of course it was difficult to go much farther than that, as each run was done at top end speed, in my basketball high tops, of course. little did I know these efforts were hardly aerobic runs, rather intensely anaerobic.

Fate came into play, as it often does. I'd been lucky enough to secure a room on Austin Hall my senior year, a dorm most every one wanted to reside in. Located right in the center of campus activity, Austin housed many Villanova athletes, including track and cross country runners. I became friendly with George Smith, who lived two doors down the hall. George was a "fringe" non-scholarship runner, meaning he ran about a 4:20 mile and 15 minutes for 5k. Seeing me return from my runs, George thought correctly that I might be able to use a little advice. He suggested I slow down and try to run a little farther. He also gave me an old pair of his running shoes, wafer thin size 11 Puma racers. I felt like I could run a 4:20 mile in the Pumas, after running for months in basketball shoes. He also told me that being running fit was kind of a nice feeling. In November of 1976, George and I completed an eleven mile run together. It felt like we were out there for hours, much more than the 90 minutes we actually were. I can still remember having stomach cramps for the rest of the day.

From there it was a steady learning process. I eventually bought my own Brooks running shoes, which I still have at home, as momentos of a by gone era. I still did almost every run at a hard pace, just from habit. I ran my first race with George in April of 1977 at Philadelphia's East River park. All of the anaerobic training paid off, as I finished 5 miles in 31 minutes. I was doing real interval workouts on the track by that time, often quarters in 70 seconds, a testimony to youth. George felt I could run under five minutes for the mile and exhorted me to try. Alas, I never did. George and I parted company upon graduation in June of 1977, but I was lucky to have had his tutelage for those early days of running. I heard a rumor that there was a magazine devoted to running, but had no idea how to go about obtaining a copy.

I returned to Connecticut after graduation. By that time, running was fully integrated into my life. I was regularly completing five and six mile runs, once a week doing a nine mile loop. It was hard to find out about races, other than by luck. I'd occasionally see someone else out running and get to talking with them. These " veterans " knew of road races, probably about one a month in the Hartford area. The Hartford " mini marathon " 10K was promoted heavily on TV and in the newspaper, so I set my sights on that event in October. The high profile of this race brought out hundreds of runners. I finished 60th in my first 10K, completing the course in 37:40. Gee, I'd be happy to run that time now!

And so my running " career " got started. Don't worry, I'm not going much farther with this chronology. From then on, I progressed as most runners do. It so happened that I was on the early wave of the running boom that hit the USA in the late 1970's and early 80's. Information became much more readily available. Jim Fixx's " The Complete Book of Running" and that aforementioned magazine called " Runner's World " cleared up a lot of the mystery associated with long distance running at the time. I learned it was normal to think about attempting a marathon. After two more years of training, I did just that, finishing the old Foxboro, MA 26.2 miler in 3 hours, 10 minutes in November, 1979. I was thrilled. Only later did I learn that the Boston qualifying time was 2:50 for men. It took me two more years, but eventually I reached that goal as well.

20 years later, the sport has changed immensely. Knowledge about training, sports medicine, and nutrition has grown almost exponentially. There were no Power Bars back in the 1970's folks! We ate toast the morning of a race, not bagels, which were still A New York creation. There was no such thing as " heart rate "; it was pulse, and we took it by holding a finger to our wrists. Running shoe technology has improved greatly in that time. I wish you all could see that old pair of Brooks shoes. I can only shake my head and wonder how I ever got through a run in them. It was a more innocent era; at least it sure seems that way. Yet a young man reading " Aerobics " for the first time in 1996 and going to the track to run for 12 minutes as fast as he is able might well begin a journey that will take a lifetime to complete.

 

 

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