A Son Leads His Mother in a Training Program for Her Next Big Race

By Benjamin Opipari
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My mother has been a runner for more than 30 years, and at 60 she still runs a couple of road races each month. It's not unusual to see Susan Pappas listed among the top three finishers in her age group; sometimes she even wins. But she has never trained. By her own admission, she has no idea what she is doing. Her regimen consists of group runs on the Capital Crescent Trail. So I was a bit surprised when she told me this fall that her goal is to win the 5K, one of the 18 medal sports at the 2009 National Senior Games in San Francisco.

For her, it's no longer about running to finish. It's about running to finish first.

And that's where I come in.

I know a thing or two about training runners. From 1992 to 2001, I was the head track coach at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. I coached the students to several state titles, both team and individual. I coached 10 All-Americans and a future Olympian. Yet the challenges these athletes presented pale in comparison to the challenge I face training the one athlete for whom I have come out of retirement to coach.

Mom and I are in uncharted territory. My mother is fast -- but she doesn't know how to run fast. I discovered this on our first day of training. We went to the track for a one-mile time trial to give us a base line for our training. I wanted to see whether her goal of finishing first was a pipe dream.

What I found was surprising: Her time of about eight minutes was almost the same as her mile pace in her 5K. Which was almost identical to her 10K pace. This means, of course, that she races at a wonderfully consistent pace -- one perfect for a weekend run in Rock Creek Park.

But for racing? Disaster.

This is one element of training that inexperienced racers overlook, probably conveniently: Running fast requires pushing your body into the realm of discomfort. And running faster than you've ever run before usually means enduring pain in your legs and lungs.

Naysayers might point out that a 60-year-old woman is, by the very nature of her age, getting slower. Training for speed, they might reason, only slows the process of getting slower. They are wrong.

True, I'm working against time, but I'm also training Mom to perform a new skill that will actually make her a better, faster runner. This is good news for anyone, regardless of age, who takes up a new athletic endeavor, especially one involving a measurable goal like time: You almost certainly will improve. The same would be true of weight training: You can make strength gains at almost any age. My mother has been running at such a steady state for so long that introducing a new level of anaerobic training (exercising to a point where her lungs cannot supply enough oxygen to her muscles) will ultimately make her faster.

Of course, speed training is difficult, and it's here -- as I cross the football field at Tilden Middle School in Rockville to shout out split times at the 200-meter mark -- that observers must surely wonder if I am engaged in parental abuse. They see a woman doubled over in oxygen debt while the younger man -- instead of being a gentleman and helping her -- tells her to stand up and keep moving. Anyone who begins anaerobic training after developing an impressive base of distance running knows the feeling of confusion after completing that first speed workout. I'm in great shape, they tell themselves, gasping for air, so why are my lungs exploding? Speed work asks of your muscles something that a nice long run cannot provide.

But when you walk off the track after a limit-busting workout, you experience the feeling of exhausted elation that comes only through accomplishing a hard-earned reward.

The 2009 Senior Games are in August. That's a long time to train for a single goal. It's unrealistic to expect my mother to stay motivated without seeing the benefits of her training. Her workout times, of course, will get faster, and punishing workouts now will seem easy in a few months, as I constantly reassure her. But we need a way to measure progress (so she can see that this is not just my way exacting revenge for all the times she grounded me as a teenager). So we've designed a series of 10- to 12-week cycles that each culminates in a 5K race. After each race, we back off the training for a couple of weeks to allow her body to recover. This cycle ensures that she'll stay fresh.

We've been training for more than a month now. And I have seen firsthand a dramatic improvement in a 60-year-old woman's running. From a jogger with a short and inefficient stride, she is becoming a racer, streamlined and efficient. I am optimistic.

At some point in our exercise routines, we runners need a change of scenery, a new goal on which to focus. We need a break from the monotony that is the five-mile run we begin each morning, walking down the same steps and running down the same street.

When merely finishing is no longer good enough, racing for time or for place is the next step. But I still have to wonder . . .

The quest to achieve a lofty goal such as ours is one of two things: the rambling of a fool or the passion of a winner. It is a thin line. Together, my mother and I will walk -- nay, run -- that line.

Benjamin Opipari is the writing instructor at the D.C. law firm Howrey LLP. Comments: health@washpost.com.


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