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"

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