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by Peter Holleran

   This is part one of a two-part article pursuing the topic “How Much Do They Train and What Do They Eat?” At first I considered entitling it simply "Maximal Results With Minimal Training/Minimal Eating!", but then realized it might give some readers false hope, so I added the contrasting subtitles. The reader is forewarned, however, that no hard conclusions are to be drawn nor will answers be forthcoming. Rather the enigmatic and amusing data presented will hopefully leave one in awe of the idiosyncrasies of success in running or endurance sports in general.

   It is an accepted maxim that training should be event-specific for best results. Mega-distances in training, therefore, are more important for running longer distances than shorter ones. While this principle is true, there are wide variations on the theme among runners. An important key to success is to avoid injury, therefore it is necessary for the individual to tailor his training to find what works for him. Many elite masters runners, for instance, seem to choose about 50-60 miles a week, with different mixes among them. The mileage may be running or a combination of running and “running equivalents”. An example of the latter is by taking biking mileage and dividing by, say, 2.5 to get the equivalent aerobic benefits of running (i.e., 15 mile bike ride divided by 2.5 equals 6 miles of running equivalent). Of course, since biking does not develop the same muscles as running it is not enough only to cycle and assume you will succeed as a runner, but a portion of ones aerobic conditioning can be achieved that way, while saving wear and tear on the skeletal system. And while not a substitute for actual running it certainly beats driving a car for fitness! Ted Corbitt recommended it for young people as preparation for lifelong running. Frank Shorter, 52, turned to the bike after his marathon career was over, to save and strengthen his legs, aid recovery, and reduce stress, even to the point of becoming an age-group champion for a time in the sport. Don Ardelle, 61, Running Times 1999 Master of the Year Honorable Mention, managed to run a 36:38 10k on only 25 miles a week, adding a hard 100 miles on the bike, however, plus some swimming and weight training. A large man (6’3”, 185 pounds), Don says since he tends to have calf problems he only runs on the dirt, relatively easy, “maybe a 7:30 pace, definitely NO FASTER. The main thing is to not get injured.” In contrast, Jack Nelson, 61, another Master of the Year, runs 50-65 miles a week, following a hard-easy pattern, but says, “my easy pace is NEVER SLOWER than seven minutes a mile” (come on, Jack, Peter Snell’s easy pace was seven minutes a mile!). His recent best 10k is 35:14, one minute faster than Ardelle’s, but arrived at through twice as much running and a body fifty pounds lighter.

   Consistency is the most important factor (besides talent) to running success. Nelson didn’t race from college until age 51, yet admits he stilll ran 30 miles a week all that time, and no doubt all those years helped. Ruth Wysocki, 43, has been competing for 30 years, and has steadily logged 50-60 miles since 1981. Dipsea legend Russ Kiernan, 62, who began his running career at age 30, runs 40-50 miles a week but also achieved alot of his aerobic endurance from 15-20 years of cycling each way from Mill Valley to his teaching job in San Francisco, a Herculean effort that earned him the Commuter of the Year award a couple of years ago. Russ confessed to me that he didn’t always bike to work when it rained - what a wimp! (just kidding). The long and short of it is that it takes time to create a distance runner. Someone once said that, as opposed to a meteor that flashes briefly across the sky, a successful distance runner is more like an ocean liner - you can see it coming a long way off. Bill Rodgers waited 8 years before tackling a marathon. Paul Reese started running at age 47 but it wasn’t until age 73 that he ran across the country (in lightweight racing flats, no less). Frank Shorter was a model of consistency and perseverance. “One dark and cold Colorado winter night, when the temperature was far below zero, he arrived home after skiing all day in Taos and driving six hours over ice-laden highways. It was nearly 11 p.m., yet he put on his shoes, took a drink of water, and went out the door for a 10-mile run, his second of the day... Another time, Shorter took Steve Prefontaine skiing at Taos. Afterwards, they went out for a 10-miler in a harsh blizzard, with wind and snow blowing in their faces. When Prefontaine remarked how tough the conditions were, Shorter replied, “No one in the world is training as hard as we are right now.” (Doesn’t that line inspire you when contemplating a little wind and drizzle?). Priscilla Welch spent her early years building an unassailable base training on the Shetland Islands in extremely poor weather conditions. She and her husband Dave ran on ice-covered roads in rubber boots with nails pounded in them and wore miners headlamps to light their way through dark, rainy nights. “Training there was a tremendous experience for getting strong. You had to literally poke your head out of the window to see if you could do the workout or not..the average winter temperature was 33 degrees with 25 to 150 mile-per-hour winds. Ice was everywhere on the roads. There are no road lights at all in the Shetlands, just one-lane roads, twisting, with a bad surface. When you walk out of the front door of your house, it’s complete blackness.” (Noakes)

   Compared to that, lucky ones such as myself in sunny California have it made. My personal conclusion lately is “give me a bike, and a mountain to run on - what more can I want for training?” My enthusiasm is such that I even find myself becoming somewhat snobbish about exercise. For instance, as I pass our local San Rafael YMCA eight minutes into a one-hour bike ride over two large hills to Lake Lagunitas, I take pity on those “lost souls” (aka “misguided commuters”) who drive their SUVs a mile to get in a workout at the “Y”. Upon reaching the Lake Lagunitas parking lot, I chuckle at the “softies” unloading mountain bikes from their Jeep Cherokees merely to ride one mile around the lake. After pitching my bike in the woods and negotiating a 3-5 mile, 2000’ climb/run to the top of Mt. Tam, I get a kick out of automobile tourists asking where I have “parked”. Their reaction is half the fun. This workout of mine, since discovering the economy of combining transportation and training, is extreme, and I can’t do it everyday - and shouldn’t. In fact, it was pure ego (and the reading of John Chodes’ biography of the legendary Ted Corbitt!) that made me attempt this five-hour workout seven times in two weeks. As Hal Higdon reminds us, “You don’t need (or even want) to do spectacular workouts that have no purpose other than to prove you can do them. More important is to train consistently, day after day, week after week.” Jack Daniels adds, “Keep your training at a consistent level - even if only an easy level - and good things will happen to you.” Nevertheless, this workout of mine is soul-satisfying and fun, and that’s what gets me out the door. Whether it helps me win my next race is another matter. In the long run, if it isn’t fun, I won’t do it.

   I’ve concluded the smart ones arrive at simple solutions to find time for training, and BIKING OR RUNNING TO WORK, OR TO ONES WORKOUT, is one of the most obvious training economizers and aerobic conditioning maximizers there can be, if you can manage it. Jackie Meckler, who in 1954 set world records in 30, 40, and 50 miles, trained mostly by running to and from work ( with up to 50k before work!). Clarence DeMar, seven-time winner and THIRTY-THREE TIME runner of the Boston Marathon, also known as “Mr. DeMarathon”, trained for his first Boston in 1910 by running seven miles leisurely to and from work with his clothes on. He came in second. Sometimes he went a longer route that took him fifteen to twenty miles. When he didn’t run he cycled to save the bus fare. DeMar wrote in his autobiography that at age seven he was in the habit of running one mile to and from school, and for many years walked up to twenty miles a day peddling wares around town to support his family after the death of his father. Ted Corbitt, when he wasn’t involved in one of his periodic mega-mileage “hell weeks”, “settled” for running 13 miles each way to work including the fifteen flights of stairs to his apartment, while living in NEW YORK CITY (like DeMar, he did this in street clothes and street shoes). When injured, he walked to work, and he also took long walks of up to 28 miles when NOT injured to “leg up” before the start of cross-country season. After his “commute” and hard day as a physical therapist he put in EXTRA mileage at nearby Van Cortland Park. It is well known that the Kenyans have to run many miles to school each day. The Tarahumarans of northern Mexico make running and running games a way of life (and, yes, only those who run develop the legendary endurance - it is not an inherited trait - as studies in the early 1970’s have shown). The Tarahumaras call themselves rarámuri which means foot runners. The word comes from rara (foot) and muri (run). For them it is a synonym for people or humans.

   Among the Apache the young boys were instructed, “My son, you know that no one will help you in this world...You must run to the mountain and come back. That will make you strong. My son, you know no one is your friend, not even your sister, your father, or your mother. Your legs are your friends; your brain is your friend; your eye-sight is your friend; your hair is your friend; your hands are your friends; you must do something with them....Be up before daylight and run to the mountain. Be back before daylight. You must do it, and I’m going to make you do it.” Navajo Rex Lee Jim recalls, “My grandfather told me that Talking God comes around in the morning, knocks on the door, and says, ‘Get up, my grandchildren, it’s time to run, run for health and wealth’...the gods reward you if you run early in the morning...If you say, ‘Oh, I’ll run in the morning,’ then you have to, or you’re lying to the gods.’” Oscar Gomez, 41, a mailman and three-hour marathoner, RUNS his mail route each day in four hours, two hours faster than his co-workers DRIVE theirs. “I make it a competition every day by trying to break my record.” He also gets up at 3:45 to run several miles before work, and follows up work with another run in the evening, for a total of 60-80 a week, not counting his “job”. I’d say that’s hardcore. Jonathan Matthews, 44, three-time Olympic Trials racewalker, starts his day at 4:30 a.m. with a relaxed five-mile run up Montana’s Mt. Helena. With his head on straight, he then takes care of his 70-miles per week by race-walking everywhere he goes: to the college where he is a professor, to schools where he oversees student-teachers, to the hardware store, grocery store, etc...A very economical arrangement.

   All right, maybe you can’t do it. You have a two-hour commute, and you’re not Ted Corbett. But little changes you can do. An example for me is this. Say I need to return a video to the video store. I’ve already done my food shopping and therefore missed the chance to combine the tasks. I could take the car out again and be there in ten minutes, counting traffic, lights, etc. At a cost of $.41per mile (insurance figures for the cost of operating a car), the round-trip would cost me $2.80 in real money (double what I spent for my two-for-one rental!). Or I could bike there, taking 12-15 minutes each way, saving the $2.80 and getting 25-30 minutes of good aerobic exercise and nearly 3 miles of running equivalents (7 miles biking divided by 2.5). Two or three decisions like that per day add up and move one towards the goal of becoming a perpetual aerobic machine. You also keep the air cleaner for your fellow joggers. Just a thought. Some may find this approach a bit stressful and feel that’s it’s better to just take the car, get in a few quality runs a week and leave it at that. They’re certainly entitled to their opinion.

   Some of the mileage put in by legendary runners such as the “pedestrians” was phenomenal. One of these was Charles Rowell, who in the late 1800’s “would run eight hours a day and put in a sixty mile run twice a week. On his hard day he would go out for a second session.” The great Corbitt had training weeks as high as 300 or more miles, where he would daily run twice around Manhatten island. Once he did three consecutive 70-milers and an 80-miler in 90-95 degree heat. For a Zatopek-like speed workout he ran 34 miles of slow/fast 100’s! The purpose of such training, he said, was “to prepare him to fight on through any level of suffering.” Now 80 years old, he recently ran 240 miles in the Sri Chinmoy Six Day race, an age-group record. Wow. American ultrarunner Stu Mittleman, 49, just made a cross-USA passage from San Diego to New York averaging two marathons a day for 56 days (www.journeyacrossamerica.com). His immediate preparation to “freshen up” was thirty miles a day for three months. During the run he went through fourteen pairs of shoes. To cross the Continental Divide at a relatively low point of 7300 feet he chose to run through the southwestern states, often in 100-110 degree heat. Like Paul Reese he ran not for speed but as an example of fitness, running sixteen hours a day and for the final three weeks sleeping only two hours a night. While running considerably slower than racers in the Transamerica he actually finished ten days quicker by minimizing rest and sleep ( a technique likewise perfected by long distance walkers, whose times are often not much slower than that of the runners).

   In contrast to these phenomenal endurance athletes, the milers and such have a much greater chance of making it on sheer talent alone. Their aerobic system just doesn’t have to be as well developed as that of those who run the marathon and beyond where the races are 95% aerobic-dependant. Walter George ran the mile in 1896 in 4:12.75. His training for six years consisted of running in place for 100 steps bringing his knees up to the level of his hips (an exercise he called “step-ups”), and only later did he include slow runs of 1-2 miles and faster runs of 400 to 1200 yards. His running competitor, William Cummings, who finished second in their “Mile of the Century” in a time of 4:20, trained by walking ten miles a day and once or twice a week doing a slow run of one mile with some faster short runs. Olympic champion Paavo Nurmi favored this method of training also, walking 5-10 miles in the morning and doing short fast runs in the afternoon. (I think there may be something to this practise. While I am not sure about just doing short, fast runs, every time I walk several miles earlier in the day my evening runs feel great. My guess is that the walking aids in recovery from the previous workout, and also primes the body to get into the aerobic zone faster. It has also just occurred to me that walking to and from school, etc., (since we had limited access to cars) was one of the primary things we used to do as kids that we don't do much of anymore. That must be an important factor, besides just age, why we had more stamina back then). The Native American runner Deerfoot, who ran 51:26 for ten miles in 1863, when asked about his training, replied, “I have never trained.” Narragansett tribesman and Boston Marathon winner Ellison “Tarzan” Brown boasted that “chopping wood and quitting beer were his workouts.” In 1902 Joe Binks ran the mile in 4:16.8 by training ONLY ONE EVENING A WEEK FOR ABOUT 30 MINUTES, running five or six 110-yard sprints, finishing with a “fast 200 or 300 yards.” Roger Bannister became the first man to run the mile in under four minutes on a training regimen of only fifteen miles a week, consisting of mostly repeat quarter miles. In contrast, world record holder Hicham El Ghourouj (3:43) trains five hours a day, with perhaps half of his sixteen second advantage attributable to a state of the art track. Bannister himself prophetically wrote that a ten second improvement would require four times as much training. Contrast the mental state of these men with that of marathoner Ron Hill, who wrote, “I wondered what would happen if I went beyond my 120-130 miles per week. Would I reach another plane of fitness and capability? I had to find out...But I was never really happy. A lot of the time I felt slightly fatigued and towards the end of this increased training stint I SEEMED TO BE DOING NOTHING BUT CHANGING IN AND OUT OF RUNNING GEAR.”

   At age 53 I only seem to be truly happy changing in and out of running gear about every other day. Not that I don’t often do more. Perhaps the great Herb Elliot summed it up best when he said “there are many ways to the top, and the training method you choose is just the one that suits you best. No, the important thing is the attitude of the athlete.” AND whether or not he is happy. Enjoy your next run.


1. Marathon: The Clarence DeMar Story, by Clarence DeMar
2. Corbitt, by John Chodes
3. Indian Running, by Peter Nabokov
4. Running with the Legends, by Michael Sandrock
5. Lore of Running, by Tim Noakes
6. Running Times, “How High Should You Go,” by Pete Pfitzinger