‘How do I run faster?’

This is THE question.  The answer is different for everyone.  Some people need more miles, some need less, some need speed, some need strength.  Some need to get out of their head and have fun.

Here’s what I needed:

The world is always speaking to us.

I’ve noticed that the world will tell me not what I want, but exactly what I need to hear.

Over and again.

Unfortunately I’ve often been too stubborn over the years to always hear it clearly, but hindsight being what it is…

I can now not only see the message, but also that it has been consistent.   What, pray tell, does the world share with me when I am humble enough to listen?

That I am not special.

There are special people out there.  People who have been genetically blessed to sing, dance, play, think, act, run.  The LeBron James, Tom Hanks, Bill Gates, Shalane Flanagan and Michael Jacksons of the world.

I wonder what the world tells them.

I am not one of those people.  Not even close.  I’m guessing you aren’t either.

And here we are.

 It took me some time to accept it but I’ve finally heard you World.  Loud and clear.  Whatever I get I have to work for.

I’m not special.

Not even when it comes to running.

My emergence as a fast runner didn’t show up unannounced.  I didn’t outrun older bullies or win my first race; the bullies caught me; the first race was unremarkable.  There was no amazing performance that said ‘Watch out world!  We have a runner here’.  I have scattered memories of placing well in the St. Theclas 1 mile fun run as a kid, of winning the timed mile in gym when no one else was racing.

The sudden emergence of a hidden talent happens to special people, and we’ve already established that is not me.  My story is less entertaining.   I started off pretty good, learned how to get a bit better, put in the work, paid the price to run a little faster, so on, so forth.

And while my years of running and competing have taught me that I’m not special, I do/did possess one thing that can’t be taught: I’m a born runner.  That doesn’t mean I am blessed with an elite runner’s body: I’m not.  I’m too tall and too muscular.

What it means is that I’ve always wanted to run, and to run fast.  I’ve always loved it.  When I was 6 or 7 I ran around my neighborhood (1 mile) just to see if I could do it.  Somewhere in the depths of my Father’s basement you may find my 3rd grade daily journal (Ms. Kirkpatrick’s class) where one day I wrote an entry about how running was special to me.  Some people run to run, some people run because they’re pretty good at it.  I ran/run because on a fundamental level it’s always been part of who I am.

Fast runner or slow, remember this quote: ‘ the race doesn’t always go to the swift, but to those who keep on running.’  That quote explains my success as a runner.  I just keep showing up.

My first brush with running fame came when I broke the indoor mile record for my elementary school.  36 laps around the gym.  Think about that for a moment.  36 laps to a mile.  A gym so small you had to leave the room to change your mind.

I’d run pretty well in the timed mile a few weeks prior and thought my daily paper route constituted a training regimen.  So I set up an attempt at the record with my gym teacher Mr. ‘Finger Spread’ Levangie.  If you went to North Pembroke in the ’80’s you may laugh at that name.

I remember 4 things:

  1. being excused from watching Johnny Tremaine on a Friday to make my record attempt.
  2. Sprinting lap 36 while Mr. Levangie yelled out ‘finish strong!’
  3. Returning to the classroom, holding up one index finger And nodding my head as a way of telling my friend Jason Trotta I had done it.
  4. The final memory:  Pain. Uncontrollable coughing and wheezing for the remainder of the day.

My reward for setting the record: burning lungs and track hack.  To this day I can still feel how badly it hurt afterward.  Every breath was agony, and I’m not complaining.

The price for being the fastest distance runner in school was easy.  A little bit of talent (nothing special) and the willingness to suffer for 36 laps.  Running is hard, boring work.  A lot of young kids don’t want anything to do with that.  I did.  It made me feel pretty good.

That record fell a year later to a kid named Michael Duclos.  I didn’t have a chance to retake it because I’d switched schools.  I was now the youngest member of varsity track at Thayer Academy as a 6th grader.  I ran the two mile in 12 flat, which was about :20 per mile faster than my record setting 1 mile performance the year before (and faster than Mike’s new record- Ha!).  I was running 4 laps to a mile now, not 36.

I LOVED being on that team.  What’s not to love?  The workouts left me bone tired, my legs were eternally sore and I felt like puking before every race.  Yet somehow, even though I was 12 and running with the high schoolers, I earned a varsity letter when our distance stud, Brian Wilson, dropped out of a race with a lap to go. Instead of coming in 4th out of 7 I squeaked out a point for coming in 3rd.  The world was telling me something that even I wasn’t too deaf to hear:

You belong here.

I dropped my baby fat, leaned up and got really fast that spring; not only over 2 miles but also in sprints.  I was never the fastest guy in Soccer or basketball practice, but after months of 200/400 meter repeats and ladder workouts I was easily winning wind sprints at the end of practice.  That spring I won the St. Theclas fun run.  I out-sprinted 2 Hanover boys over the final 20 yards for my first major victory.

Oh the sweet thrill of victory.  My reward for winning my first big race:  I vomited raisin bran all over the finish line.  The crowd went from elated cheering to disgust in a heartbeat.  In that same heartbeat I learned to never eat raisin bran, or anything with milk, before racing.

The price to win your first local road race was a little higher than the school record.  I trained all spring and ran a ton of intervals and races.  I suffered through stiff hamstrings, and legs that burned with lactic acid for weeks.

I’d gladly pay that price again.

I ran track every spring, improving a bit here and there, until my sophomore year when I fell in love with Cross Country.  Track is fine, but running lap after lap during a cold, damp New England Spring is decidedly less fun than running through the woods of autumn with Harold Hatch as your coach.  I hope that everyone on earth falls in love with someone/something the way I fell for Cross Country.  I can still vividly recall how amazing that first race felt, how fun my coaches were, how much I loved my team and our weekly team dinners and road trips.  When I wasn’t in season I was thinking of next season.

I had an OK first season: broke 17 minutes for 5k, made the All New England prep team.  I was good, but that was not enough.  I was in love.  I needed to be special.  That wasn’t happening by accident.

I laid out my athletic future.  I was going to figure out how to run faster, win my league meet, set my school cross country record and then continue to run in college.  I had 2 years to accomplish all of this.

And being the modest, self assured man you know today I was compelled to tell everyone I knew just that.  I was winning the league and setting the record.  I was quoted in the school paper saying that as a sophomore.

I even  told my coach.  A week later, during the fall awards banquet he had this to say:

‘Steve is an (pause) interesting kid.  He’s got to learn that in order to win he has to outwork everyone.’

It pissed me off to hear that.  I thought he’d mention how great I would be next year, how I have the raw talent to be special, how he was sure one day I’d make good on my promise.

Instead I’m called interesting.  And I have to out work everyone.

I’m not special?

It pissed me off enough that I still remember it.  Vividly.

Best advice I’ve ever received.

Success, you may have learned, is never a straight line.  My junior year summer I stepped up my training from the daily mountain bike trips of the previous year, to actually running.  I ignored my coach’s training plan and just went out for 4 or 5 jogs every week; the longest one was about 7 miles.  I thought this constituted enough training for me to win the league next year.  The world told me every chance that I wasn’t special, but I didn’t hear it clearly enough.

My training was haphazard and disorganized so it should come as no shock that my improvement that fall was tepid.  I made all league (top 5) and ran faster, but not by much.  I hardly improved on my home course (I was still languishing a full minute behind the school record).

If I was going to make good on my promise to win then something was gonna have to happen.

Einstein has a quote that I think is applicable here.

‘Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.’

This is an intellectual way of saying that to run with the big boys you’ve got to train like them.  To run faster I had to approach training at a different frequency/energy level.  I wasn’t training to set an elementary school record, or a local fun run.  There were other kids who loved running just as much and I was not special.  I had to outwork everyone.  I didn’t exactly know what that meant yet.

My lack of a major breakthrough was partially due to me not training hard enough the previous summer, and partially because I was a late bloomer.  I was tall, skinny, and not too muscular.  That summer I filled out a bit, and even began shaving (two, sometimes three times a month!).  I was seeing results from the weight room for the first time.  My body was ready for a change.

All I cared about was getting faster.  I wasn’t dropping a minute to set the school record.  I set my eyes on cracking the top 5 of my school’s fastest times and winning my league championship.  The school record (15:45) was about a minute faster than I’d run (16:39) to that point, so I focused on getting :30 faster.  16:10 seemed unspeakably fast to me at the time, but I lied to myself every day and said I could do it.

If you sit still and watch a friend walk away for :30 seconds you’ll see your friend get pretty far away.  Now imagine they’re running.

I had my work cut out.

If I accomplished these goals I could run in college somewhere, I thought.

That summer the towns of Pembroke and Duxbury cleaned up the edges of route 53.  No more pot holes, broken crags of concrete, overgrown edges, or shards of broken glass.  They manicured that roadside into a dirt berm that was packed hard enough that I wouldn’t lose speed running on it, soft enough to save me from smashing my shins and tendons to bits as I upped my mileage.  Looking back, it was fate.  That was the summer I learned to run fast and this was the perfect surface to do it on.

I piled on the miles.  This time I memorized the simple running plan Coach Hatch had tucked into the back page of an orange fall Cross Country packet.   Increase your mileage by no more than 10% a week, make sure you ran long once a week (20-25% of weeks miles in one shot), get that long run up over 10 miles, and in August start adding a weekly monster workout.  Something like 4 x 1 mile repeats.

Build a big base for the upcoming season. Whittle it down to a sharpened peak by November.  Simple works.

I stuck to that plan.  I ran that long stretch of rt 53 so many times that I remembered every pot hole, hill, intersection, driveway and store along the way.  I did it on 90 degree days, and even a couple 100 degree days.  Neighbors and friends would constantly greet me with ‘I saw you out running.’  I ran a specially designed 12 mile course twice a week because it felt good.

August came and I started my Monster workouts.  I drove to the track behind Silver Lake high school and ran a timed mile in 5:15. It felt easy.  I rested and then ran another in 5:18.  Then 5:25, then 5:30.

‘Maybe I can run in college,’ I thought as I walked back to the car.  I hope that you, dear reader, feel that same sense of accomplishment and hope that I got from that workout.

That season was magic.  The training/maturity catapulted me into a different league.  I placed 5th in an early all state meet (thought I had it with a mile left), I accidentally ran a 4:25 (PR) mile in the first mile of a 5k (whoops), I won my league title, and on a perfect October day I scored a huge PR on the home course, running a school record 15:43 (almost a full minute faster).

I had the best mentor/coach you could ever ask for.  You don’t become your fastest self without someone dragging part of it out of you.  Harold Hatch was a math teacher and Cross Country/track coach.  At his retirement party, surrounded by loving students, family and appreciative parents it crossed my mind that he was the richest man I’ve ever met.

The Boston Globe and Patriot Ledger were my local newspapers growing up.  Every season they’d choose their all scholastic athletes in every sport.  I dreamed one day I’d be good enough at something to be selected, but realistically, I never thought it would be me.  I’m glad I was wrong.

I looked at those kids year after year and thoight these guys/girls were heroes.  I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve struggled with self esteem- All scholastic gave me a lot of confidence.  Still does.

The price for being a high school all star was steeper.  40 miles a week, harder workouts, running in all weather, filling out a training log and finding the right mentor.

Years later when Coach Hatch, was inducted into our High school athletic hall of fame with his son Mark (3 time league champ), someone passed me a sheet of bright orange paper.  ‘Remember this?’  On it was Coach Hatch’s summer training plan.  Holding it in my hands I was overcome.  I literally burst into tears at the sight of it.   Why?  Because I have what you can’t teach.  I define myself by how I run.

That sheet of orange paper changed the definition.

I enrolled at Bowdoin College in the fall.  I was in the top 10% of my graduating class GPA, I was captain of two teams, I was president of the student council.  In the words of Kanye West ‘Ya can’t tell me nothin’.

I thought I was hot shit that fall.  I thought maybe I was special.

I’d quickly discover how wrong I was.

There I was, sitting in an auditorium with my new classmates during freshmen orientation and the dean was giving us the rundown on our class.

  • 90% of you were in the top 10% of your graduating class.
  • 80% of you were a sports captain.
  • 60% of you were involved in student government.

There were three other classes full of similar students enrolled already.  Translation- you’re  not special.

The same lesson was taught in running.  You think you’re hot stuff because you were all league this, or all state that?  Well, get on the start line of any collegiate race and look to your left and right.  Everybody on that line with you was all state, all league, all world.  Every one.

My freshman year I got demolished.  Sophomore year I trained I stepped up my training.  I ran hard every day, took NO days off and ran myself into the ground.  Runners knee, then shin splints, then a sprained ankle, then a cortisone shot.  It crossed my mind more than once that maybe I was just a good high school runner.  I thought about quitting.

Thankfully I have what you can’t teach: I’m a born runner.

The race doesn’t always go to the swift…

Serious injury happens to every runner.  If you can push through them you can truly say that you love running.

Training more with a vague plan wasn’t enough to win in college.  So junior year I smartly, seriously, and cautiously upped my mileage.  I ran more than ever before but was careful to schedule in rest and stretch a little.

Match the frequency of the reality you want.

I read a bunch of books about training to understand why I was training a certain way.  I took 6 months to build up my base mileage the right way.  I learned to listen to my body, had my first deep tissue sports massages (the most painful hour of my life).  I got a job at Marathon Sports and befriended a few runners who were much, much faster than I.  I learned a lot from them, more than I could share here.  I’m eternally grateful to Ashley Johnson and Dave Menoski for their mentorship.  The main thing they taught me:

  • If you’re looking to improve and you’re the fastest person on your team or in your group, find a new team/group.

When I returned to college I dropped over 100 seconds off my best freshman time, won a few conference titles and even made the All American team twice.

I won the Hingham 4th of July road race (over 4,000 people) training through it.

I was named Outstanding Athlete of my graduating class.  Joan Benoit Samuelson gave me the award (Joan is special and outworks everyone.  I just outwork most people).

The price to be a collegiate star was full immersion into running as an identity.  Just running more, though crucial, will only get you so far (fast).  To get better at this level you have to be more disciplined, more intelligent, you’ve got to listen to your body, and train/learn from those who are better than you.  You have to put in 70 to 100 miles a week for most of the year.  Run in the rain, blizzards, extreme heat.  It’s more fun than it sounds.

If your ego can’t take losing, or failing then you’re running to reaffirm your idea of how good you are, not running to improve.  You won’t reach your potential without getting your ass kicked.

You’re not special.

I think you have to get seriously hurt at least once to find out if you love it enough to come back.  It’s the Running God’s way of making sure you want it.  How many faster, more gifted runners did I outlast because they were only good when it was easy?

The race doesn’t always go to the swift.

So you want to get fast? You don’t have to be especially talented.  He’ll, all it takes is one thing:

You’ve got to decide that you’re a born runner.

Call yourself a runner.  Think about it every day.  Run more miles than ever, run them faster than you thought you could, run with people who are better than you, get your ass kicked, learn in defeat, return the favor, get hurt, come back, learn from mistakes, puke at the finish line, bake on summer long runs, freeze on winter ones.

Decide you’re a born runner.  Keep on running.

Do it long enough and eventually the world will confirm it.

That (plus more) is the price you gotta pay to get fast.

It is worth every cent.