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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?

A week later, I am on the phone with Centrowitz, setting up our first track workout on Jan. 12. It is intimidating to be evaluated by a runner who once covered 3.1 miles in 13:12, setting a U.S. record. He still holds the New York State high school mark in the mile, at 4:02 set in 1973.

"How is the rest of your training going?" he asks.

"Really good. The physical trainer is beating the crap out of me."

"Now, listen," he says. "You're a runner. We only have 10 weeks here. I don't want you to become Hercules."

"Oh, it's not bulk. It's all core stuff."

"Yeah, but you're old and fat. I don't need you leaving all your energy in the gym."

"I hear you," I say, laughing. "I'll be careful." I decide not tell him that I'll be taking speed skating lessons that Sunday for an upcoming fitness column.

Distance running, as practiced by people such as Centrowitz in his prime, is about staving off pain. Think of an Olympic distance final as a handful of genetically blessed, superbly trained athletes who agree to stick their hands in a flame. The person who can hold out longest usually wins. In 1976, at 22, Centrowitz made the U.S. Olympic team in the 1500-meter run but was eliminated in an early heat. In 1980, he won the U.S. Olympic trials in the 5000. But the United States boycotted the Moscow Olympics, and Centrowitz never got his shot at the gold.

This morning, he stands bare-headed in the 12-degree wind chill, cloaked in a blue AU parka, stopwatch in hand as I circle the track, desperately trying to show I'm up to this task. He keeps yelling at me to slow down. The irony of this is not lost on me. I am confident Centrowitz has not seen anyone move this slowly on his track in a very long time.

He wants me to run 800 meters in 4:30, but I finish in 3:57. (A good high school runner would cover the same distance in half the time.) I don't know how he'll react until he says: That's what beginners do. They overcompensate.

Until today, I have been running on my own. Instead of mileage, the focus of most distance programs, Centrowitz measures time spent running. He wants to get my heart rate up. He has told me to run at least 40 minutes four times a week, and once for at least two hours on the weekend, to build stamina.

Track workouts are designed to increase speed and teach me to hold a pace. I have tried to do them on my own during previous programs. But it's not the same as having Centrowitz or Assistant Coach Bridget Bowers calling out my times each 400 meters. Centrowitz believes that completing a successful marathon is about finding the perfect pace and running it, with little variation, for the entire 26.2 miles. He calls it "locking on."


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