Saturday, July 20, 2013

The History and Changes of the Marathon Training Clinic

"Before I speak, I have something important to say" - Groucho Marx

Way back in the late 70's, there was a rather select group of runners in the Birmingham area that had actually done several marathons - Adam Robertson, Ray Giles, Rick Melanson, and a few more. They were the icons of local running who could complete what was then the almost unreachable finish line of a marathon. At the time, in the infancy of of the masses running, most local races were 10k's with an accompanying 2 mile Fun Run. Hoover, the town where I now live, was the site of my very first race and later in '79 had what I believe was the only Half Marathon around. In February of 1979, the three year-old Birmingham Track Club hosted the 1st Magic City Marathon that was run through the streets of Birmingham and several miles to the East into the slowly decaying neighborhood of Woodlawn. Running was starting to BOOM in Birmingham. Still, the information on how to train and run these marathons was more myth than fact.

I had just begun running less than a year before that 1st Magic City Marathon, but actually had little desire to attempt such a unfathomable distance. C'mon, 26 miles? Run? 3+ hours? I knew how I felt after the 10k's I had done and really didn't care to extend my lungs and heart four times the distance. However, due to my other interest at the time, photography, I followed a couple of friends around the Magic City course as they tackled the marathon, photographing their gradual physical demise as they ticked off the miles. When they finished and I saw their complete exhaustion, the total muscular fatigue, the spent energy depletion, the blisters, the hobbled gait from the finish line, their Finisher's keychain, there was only one thing for me to say..."I gotta get me some of that. Where do I sign up?". 

Following that race, the aforementioned local icon marathoners held a retrospective class on how to run a marathon. It was a one-night, 3-4 hour open forum type talk that covered all aspects of this mysterious side of running. It was like hearing Jonas Salk teaching you in one night how to cure polio - you had no idea what it was, but you wanted to do it. Nine months later, I ran in the 1st Vulcan Marathon here in Birmingham, and as they say, the rest is history. I was hooked for life. Thirty-four years later, I have run 135 marathons or ultras, and although the times have become agonizingly slow, I still toe the line a few times a year. One of the great joys I have had, in addition to being able to keep my body relatively healthy enough to do these crazy distances, is that I have had the opportunity through the years to teach what I have learned to those other runners that wanted to dip their feet into the marathon waters. 

In 1983, I was asked to assist Murray Binderman to hold a series of meetings where we would talk about the different aspects of marathon training in preparation for Vulcan. It was pretty well attended for the 4-5 meetings we held, but fairly informal. The next year, Murray decided not to do the classes, so I took over. I was able to obtain a room at UAB every other week for 5 months, and the Marathon Clinic was supported by the Birmingham Track Club. We had refreshments and handouts and sometimes we needed extra chairs. Sometimes, we had a guest speaker, but most of the time, I  would hold court. After going through one of my classes, Charles Thompson jumped in and helped do some of the teaching and mechanics of the clinic. He continues to help today.  There was, and never has been, any cost to take part, and no accountability - you showed up if you wanted and didn't if you didn't want to. Our group would have these bi-weekly classes and meet every Sunday somewhere on the marathon course to follow a cookie-cutter training schedule I put together that could accommodate several levels of runners (no run/walk back then). In those days, when computers were in their infancy, I had to draw the training maps with a pen and a ruler. It's funny, but one of the primary routes many local runners still use during their training these days is running up a quarter-mile hill up Overbrook Road. The reason we run up it is because it was easier for me to draw one long straight line than to draw a bunch of short lines meandering through the neighborhood. My legacy is set long after I'm gone!! Al's Hill!! 

Now, I held this Marathon Clinic for 11 years, but now let's fast-forward to 1995 when I was asked to become the Run Coach for the Leukemia Society's Team-in-Training (later the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society). The training for the Society went year-round training groups to go here, there, and everywhere, so when training for The Vulcan Marathon and later the Mercedes Marathon (founded in 2002) came around, I merely merged the two groups together for the runs, but gradually, the classes became too unwieldy for the different groups and so I changed my disemination of information from mostly classes to a weekly email called RUNNING WITH AL. If that title sounds familiar, look at the top of this page! Since '95, we began meeting for runs at the Brownell Building (now the NBC Bank Building) and to this day, it is one of the major meeting places for groups of runners in the general Birmmingham area to meet on the weekends. After training a group for the 1997 Midnight Sun Marathon in Alaska, Ken Harkless, who had run that marathon for the Society, asked if he could co-coach the Leukemia runners. He only had to ask once and has been by my side to this day. Together, we have coached probably several thousands of runners, but who's counting. In 2010, after 15 years of being the Leukemia Run Coach, I turned the reins over to Prince Whatley, who has very ably taken over those runners, while I continued to train the Mercedes Marathon guys (the Vulcan Marathon folded in 2000). Ken continues to coach the run/walkers for the Leukemia Runners in addition continuing to be by my side training our local group of  marathon and halfmarathon runners, training for our Birmingham Mercedes Marathon, as well as marathons all over. Ken and I would put out coolers and say "go", but most of the coaching over the last 2+ years has since been done through my RUNNING WITH AL blog, or RWA's little brother blog, TRAINING WITH AL

In the past couple of years, the Birmingham running scene has exploded both on the roads and on the trails. Led mostly by The Trak Shak Running Shops, there have been social events, almost weekly races of several distances, and the very successful Mercedes Marathon. In addition, local training groups have sprung up all over town and are doing great with promotions, cohesiveness, and direction. One of the most popular is the Birmingham Track Club's Long Distance Training Group (begun in 2006) that meets every Saturday from The Trak Shak's front door in Homewood. Coordinated by Natalie Ferguson, every week  it seems that they gather 30-40-50 or more runners for their runs of 8-22 miles. They have volunteers to man water coolers and I believe they may even have Pace Leaders for some of their runs. So, it only seems right that the Sunday Marathon Training Group should move and merge (?) with the Saturday group. 

And so, my friends, after 28 years, I am about to turn the direction, planning, and coordination of training you marathoners over to Natalie and her crew. I will help any way I can and will continue to write TRAINING WITH AL once the formal training begins. More information about the group's runs will be coming soon, but the best way to keep up is to sign up on their Facebook page. Also, Ken and I will continue to show up on Sundays to say "go" at NBC, but it's getting harder and harder for me to keep up with you guys on the runs, but I'll be there riding shotgun. As usual, ask me anything at any time about any subject concerning marathoning. If I don't know the answer, I'll make something up that will sound very believable. And as always, as I have done for more than the past three decades...
I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A July Run...A Lighthouse...and my son

"The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt in the heart" - Helen Keller 

One of my great joys is to get the opportunity to run with my son. When Michael was a young child growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I was afraid he might get influenced with what amounts to maniacal fervor over football here in the deep south. There are only 3 sports seasons here in the south - football season, Bowl season (counted as a season because it almost always includes the University of Alabama), and spring football. Lately, you might want to include a seasonal subset that is known as Recruiting, but this goes on year 'round about  "the Class of 2013...2014...2015" and on and on. They even recruit 8th graders now, for Pete's sake. Once these guy's find girls and the girls don't want them to play football so much, let's see how many of them line up for Opening Day against Whatsamatter U. in September of 2018. Anyway, in an effort to cleverly divert Michael away from a sport that might get his head knocked silly by a charging linebacker, I steered him to one of my favorite sports, soccer, where his head might get knocked silly trying to head the ball. After a few shots to the nose with errant attempts at heading the ball, the boy actually became pretty good. 

About the same time he was getting his feet wet in this foreign game, ol' dad began running.  Surprisingly, 10k's became Half Marathons that became marathons that became ultras. I dragged my family to crazy places while I ran crazy runs of crazy distances. Michael would run an occasional 2 mile fun run with me, but most of the time, he didn't see much glamour in the sport. Seeing his dad at 85 miles of a 24 Hour run is not the best advertisement to pursue the sport yourself.

As he grew to be a very good soccer player, pretty much the memories of running involved running a lap when he would balloon the ball over the crossbar in practice. His coach at Shades Valley High School had this strange coaching philosophy that he believed you would cure all your bad habits related to soccer if you ran a lap immediately after committing such said offense. To this day, when Michael & I get the opportunity to watch a soccer match together and some over-enthusiastic forward rifles the ball into Section 32, we both say in unison "Take a lap".

Michael never took to running for running's sake, but as he got older, and moved away, he would lace up the shoes and go for an occasional run, and sometimes, usually coaxed by some friends, he would enter a race. Back in 1999 (I think), I flew out to San Diego to be a fifth team member emergency fill-in for a Mud-Run event at Camp Pendelton. Now, this was way before Mud Runs were the extravaganza they are today. YOU CAN READ MY BLOG OF OUR MUDFEST HERE. I still say to this day, it was the most fun I ever had running. When I die and God asks me what was my best day ever, that day will for sure make the Very Short List.

Several years ago, at Christmas time, Michael came down to Birmingham with his wife to visit (he lives in Boston then and now), and we got to go for a run. During that run, I mentioned to him that I know he always wonders what to get me for my birthday in May. Well, that May, I told him, there was to be a Half Marathon in Boston, and if he would train and we could run it together, that would be the best present ever. He didn't train like a demon, but he did fit in enough runs into his schedule that we finished that race in 2:16 and had a ball. Talked the whole way...went out too fast of course...finished slower than we wanted of course. Finishing with him next to me fulfilled all I hoped it would be. It had nothing to do with 13 miles, nothing to do with 2 hours with 16 minutes tacked on, nothing to do with the medals around our neck. We were sharing a time alone even though there was 10,000 other runners in the race. Again, one of those Very Short List moments.

These moments of running with him are special. Now, that he and Joanie have blessed us with 2 grandchildren, we see each other about every other month. Sometimes we get one day where we get to run, sometimes not. There's no pressure. If it's going to happen, it'll happen. When we do, he's faster than me, I can go further than him, so there's that symbiosis. 

This past week, they had rented a house in Falmouth, Cape Cod, for a week and we got to spend a few days with them (just got home about 1 AM last night). Wasn't sure if we'd get to run because when you have 2 toddlers running around...I mean literally RUNNING around...virtually every second, then you don't plan for things to happen. Things just fall into suddenly vacant time slots. And so it was on July 4th, that the time wormhole opened up and I said "I'm going to run" at which point Michael asked where I was going. I said that I was going to run to this lighthouse I had seen on the map. He said "how far?", I said "I dunno, about 6 miles I guess". To my joy, he said "It's a little stretch for me, but I'll come.". Cloudless sunlight, high noon, but a cool 75 degrees (coming from the 95 in Birmingham), we set out for the Nobska Lighthouse. We enjoyed a run through the quaint downtown of Falmouth and linked up with the Shining Sea Bike Path. This is a several mile paved bikeway that leads to the ferry just south of the lighthouse. Seems simple enough. Well, dad's direction-challenged mind was sure that we had to get off the bike path if we were going to get to the light house. Next thing, we are on a dirt trail, complete with wild deer. We (me) would try to look down the beach to see if I could see the lighthouse, but persistent fog was situated right on the beach. Confident, I said "It's got to be right around the next bend". Well, right around the next bend was up a twisting, hilly road, complimented with a 20MPH headwind. WE MADE IT, and with the GPS reading 4.2 miles, one of us seemed a little happier than the other (remember I said he could faster, I could go further?) to see the lighthouse. Needless to say, our return run was a little more leisurely than the out run. But, this just adds to what is so special for me...getting to share these moments, running along, seeing strange, unexpected sights, with my son. At about 7 miles, he announces that "I think this is my 3rd longest run ever!". Not sure if he was THAT happy about it, but I'm pretty sure I've been there for all three. He accused me of lying about the planned distance, but I assured him I was merely eyeballing the distance from a map the same way as when I set out on a long run anywhere..."Oh, it looks like it's about (blank) miles". I'm never off by more than 50%! On the way back, we even got to cross the painted-in-the-road finish line of the Cape Cod Marathon. I always think that's neat when I'm out of town. Then a short jog back to the house where our 8.3 mile "6 miler" ended and all ills were cured with a little watermelon. 

I will never tire of days like this, and neither should any parent. Running, hiking, playing, just being with your child is such a deep special moment. It doesn't matter if they're 4 or 40. I don't see many folks running with their kids (younger or grown). I see more people running with their dogs, for crying out loud. I guess that's special for them...too bad. For me, I'll take that slightly meandering journey that seems like it's headed for a foggy lighthouse, but it's really a very clear bond during a run with with my son.

I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"