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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?

After a few weeks of training, I can hit my targets regularly, often within a few seconds. Centrowitz appears impressed; he says this is not an easy skill to pick up. "You're an animal," he yells. A tortoise, perhaps.

I have been hoping he would beat me up a little, wrench improvement from me the way he does with his AU athletes. But amid the pounding from Beven, I conclude to my relief that the coach is coddling me, carefully pushing the speed and distance to protect me from injury, and he does it instinctively. He notices everything -- from the way I use my arms while running to the amount of time I spend cooling down.

In coming weeks, the 800s will become miles, the miles will become two-kilometer runs. I am occasionally on the AU track for more than two hours, running more than 10 miles total.

***

At the seven-week midpoint of my training with Beven, I can do "traveling planks" -- a cross between a pushup and a plank -- for 60 seconds. My abdominal muscles are much stronger, and Beven has me doing sit-ups with an 10-pound medicine ball, twisting my trunk to strain my obliques.

I am now jumping on and off a foot-high weight-lifting bench, closing in on 25 leaps in 60 seconds. It is play for a child, exhausting for an adult. When Beven does it, even with an injured knee, there is absolute silence. When I land, it sounds like a safe falling out a window.

My weight remains stubbornly above 200 (which would qualify me for the "Clydesdale" category at some marathons), but my body has changed markedly. I am tighter and stronger than I've been in years, especially around my gut and hips. My wife has noticed. My children, ever watchful for an opportunity to make fun of my aging body, have nothing to say.

A week later, at the end of January, I meet with Anastasia Snelling, associate dean of AU's school of Education, Teaching and Health. I have submitted a week-long food diary, a horrifying exercise. She has conducted a detailed analysis, with calorie counts and nutritional breakdowns. Snelling is good-natured as she delivers the bad news in her office: I have to eat less fat, drink more water and take in more complex carbohydrates. Cut back on the coffee, diet soda and chocolate, and knock off the late-night snacks, she says.

Then she mentions something that has nothing to do with nutrition. She suggests I find alternate ways to evaluate the success of this project. What if, she asks, you run the same time but you feel much stronger at the end? Wouldn't that qualify as success?

The question takes me aback. I have focused so single-mindedly on improving my time that I don't know how to answer.

I go for my long run the next day, 16 miles down the C&O Canal trail from home to work. It is less than 20 degrees outside, and the trail is virtually deserted. The muddy brown Potomac, swollen by weeks of snowmelt and rainfall, and my iPod are my only company for miles at a time. Ice keeps plugging my water bottle. There is ice on my backpack. A recently strained groin muscle starts to hurt about halfway. The towpath is frozen solid, ridged and rocky. It would be easy to turn an ankle or tweak a knee, so mostly I keep an eye on the ground ahead of me. I've rarely been this unhappy on a run.

Snelling's question nags at me. When I ran my first marathon in 2005, I thought it was a one-and-done effort, an entry on the Bucket List. But I haven't been able to stop. The demanding training keeps me in shape. Rising at 5:30 a.m. on Saturdays for 20-mile runs in the cold requires discipline. But to run that far for sheer enjoyment? I don't know many marathoners who do; it's too difficult. We are a goal-oriented bunch, especially those of us whose bodies may soon demand that we slow down or, worse, betray us with injuries.


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