A Dreamer's Run: Can professional training improve a middle-age runner's marathon time?

Lenny Bernstein was disappointed by his marathon time. But if the 51-year-old, for whom running is a middle-age obsession, got the same professional training as elite athletes, would he improve?
By Lenny Bernstein
Sunday, May 2, 2010

Elite distance runners tend to come in two shapes: tall and impossibly lean; and tiny wisps who seem to float over the ground, barely touching it.

The first thing I notice is that Matt Centrowitz -- coach of the American University track team, two-time Olympian, four-time national champion in the 5000-meter run -- is neither. He is a bulldog beneath his buzz cut, and broad-shouldered at perhaps 6 feet tall. He fills the tiny AU office where I have come for his help, for an intervention in my midlife running crisis. I know he can deliver. He is, by reputation, an old-school track coach -- the blunt, profane, alpha male of a highly successful athletic program. Centrowitz's athletes regularly defeat bigger, better-funded schools.

My proposition: Would he be willing to train me, a back-of-the-pack schlepper, for an upcoming marathon, to help me write about the value of coaching?

Centrowitz, 55, looks me over dubiously. At 5-11, I am 206 pounds after an autumn spent too often in my recliner, and it shows. He has no idea how committed I am. My performance, good or bad, would reflect on him. But he says exactly what I want to hear.

"The mind controls the body," he tells me in a thick Bronx accent unaltered by his years running for the University of Oregon or his career at AU. "That's the words we're going to live by." That's how his coach at New York City's famed Power Memorial High School trained him, and it is what I want him to teach me.

It is Dec. 8, and Washington's National Marathon is March 20. The 14 weeks we have are not enough for thorough training, he says. But he is confident he can help me improve my time if I dedicate myself to the task. Then I make the mistake of saying that the National Marathon is not as scenic a course as its more famous Washington cousin, the Marine Corps Marathon.

"It's 26 miles," Centrowitz barks. "... We're not gonna be concerned about scenery. You gotta be ready for war."

Got it, coach.


At some point, most recreational athletes wonder: How good could I be if I had what the pros have? My own coach. Superior physical training. Top-of-the-line equipment. Minions to pour Gatorade directly into my mouth. Of course, we know the score. The most talented athletes are reliably identified as early as middle school and channeled to elite programs where, justifiably, they receive the best of everything.

But what if the worst athletes had the best coaches? How much is performance a matter of ability, and how much can be taught? Apparently, there is no good academic research on coached vs. uncoached runners, but experts everywhere say coaching works. It works for top runners, and it works for people like me, with few fast-twitch muscle fibers in our genetic tapestries.

"In most endeavors, people have realized that professional help is the shortcut to success," says noted online running coach Greg McMillan. "When you're trying to go beyond yourself, trying to do something you haven't done before, it's nice to have a partner."

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