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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?

At 51, I have trained for seven marathons in five years -- with friends, with a charity, with a local running group led by two excellent coaches, with an online program. My results range from acceptable to disappointing to disastrous. My personal best, 4:33 in Chicago last October, placed me in the bottom 40 percent of the 50-to-54 age group. Perhaps this is the limit of my capabilities. But I have always felt I could do better.

For a kid who topped out athletically in rec league basketball, running is the perfect middle-age obsession. The only result that matters is beating my own previous performance. Other than the weather and terrain, most elements are within my control. When the way forward at work is murky, when my marriage hits a bump, when I can't make middle school any better for my daughter, there is always the clarity of running. It is precise, definable, measurable. It boils down to seconds and minutes and miles, and there is a finish line at the end of each race. All I need is a pair of good running shoes and a lot of willpower.

Or so I've always heard. This time, however, I've decided to improve my odds by engaging a physical trainer, a nutritionist and my own running coach.

***

Two hours after meeting Centrowitz, I am in a Starbucks in Chevy Chase with Helen Beven, an elite masters road racer who specializes in physical training for runners. The contrast with Centrowitz could not be more striking. Beven, 44, is friendly but mild of temperament, more reserved. She has an upper body sheathed in ropey, well-defined muscle. She looks like a runner.

She takes stock of me the same way Centrowitz did. She explains how a stronger body, from shoulders to calves, will help me run faster and delay fatigue. It is advice I've read a thousand times; I've even written it in a fitness column I do for The Washington Post. I've just never tried it myself.

I ask how tough her regimen will be. "We'll try not to hurt you," she says, "too much."

Eight days later, it is quickly evident that nothing in my years of plodding straight ahead has prepared me for Beven's assault on my weak and flabby core. The warm-up is not too taxing, but then she has me squat to the floor and leap to touch the ceiling 20 times. I run up and down a small step with weights in my hands. I drop to the floor and try to hold the plank position, a push-up pose with my weight on my forearms. Fat drops of sweat splatter on the black mat below my face, like the leading edge of a summer thunderstorm. Three times during the session, I lurch out the door into the freezing air, my head spinning, certain I am about to vomit. Beven trails me each time, making no attempt to hide her alarm. "I don't think I've ever actually made anyone throw up yet," she says as I hang over a railing outside the Sweat Shop in Kensington, where we are working out.

The next two weeks are not as bad. I am now merely lightheaded during some of the exercises. To improve my balance, Beven puts me through a series of lunges and squats, sometimes done with weights, with my feet on a half-ball, a rounded platform that forces my core muscles to engage and keep me upright. I fall off repeatedly. To boost the explosiveness in my legs, I also start lifting weights. Over the coming weeks, I will do leg presses, leg extensions and hamstring curls, along with triceps dips, bench presses and other upper-body work.

Today, for the first time, Beven feels comfortable enough to bring up the subject of my weight. "You would do better if you lost a little, well, um ...," she says in her British accent. She gestures around her own taut middle but can't bring herself to say the words.

"Fat?" I ask. "Blubber?" We both laugh. But research shows that each pound lost saves about two seconds per mile over the course of a marathon.

***


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