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

By Lenny Bernstein
Sunday, May 2, 2010; W12

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."

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.

***

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."

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.

I've given myself 3:10 for the rugged run to Washington. I make it in 3:04.

***

The first blizzard of the week is going to wipe out my Saturday run of 18 miles. Some members of my running group decide to go at 4:30 a.m. today, Friday, Feb. 5, before the snow starts. But Centrowitz wants me to do a track workout because I missed one earlier this week. He is out of town, so Friday finds me alone at AU, running mile repeats. I am dodging icy patches on the track, and the blizzard starts about halfway through my workout, heavy flakes slanting into my face on the windblown oval.

By mid-February, I am in the thick of the training program: four to five runs each week, about 40 miles in all, plus the weekly session with Beven and the two workouts she has me do at home. In order to have a full day of rest, I work out twice at least one day a week. Because of the snow, I am running five to seven miles a day on the treadmill in the hot, dry, boring gym. I am constantly hungry and chronically exhausted. I sometimes catch myself dozing off at work.

Normally, I have only my own standards to meet, but, this time, I'm worried about letting down Centrowitz and Beven, wasting all the work they have put in, then telling the whole world how I messed up. The coach frequently reminds me that his "future" is in my hands. I'm trying to remember what I was thinking when I proposed this story.

***

After all these weeks, Centrowitz lets me in on The Secret: There is no secret.

Contrary to what I've read, he says, the infamous "Wall" at 20 miles, where marathoners run out of gas, is not inevitable. Preparation is the key. You don't have to be mentally tough when you start to fall apart if you don't fall apart, he tells me. Don't go out too fast or too slowly, make adjustments where needed, and there should be no crisis.

This is stunning. I have hit The Wall in marathon after marathon. And last year, I ran the National in 5:06 after projectile-vomiting at mile 13. The idea that I can avoid such misery inspires a surge of confidence. At a track workout with Centrowitz a week or two later, I realize that I am now warming up at 10 minutes a mile, a pace that once took some effort. Centrowitz claps me on the back several times, telling me I have wasted my athletic talent. But I'm feeling superstitious and don't want to talk about it.

The second week in March brings the two-week period when I cut back my mileage and give my tired muscles a rest. There is little more I can do to prepare physically. I savor my newfound fitness. I have lost eight pounds and taken my belt in a notch. I can do sets of 20 to 25 pushups. I gobble up hills that once reduced me to a walk. I am, quite simply, in the best shape in many years.

***

Race day, March 20, dawns too warm, at about 50 degrees. So many things can ruin a marathon, and heat is first on the list. The temperature will head toward 70 degrees before I finish, too hot for someone who tends to sweat profusely. I am up at 4 a.m. to get ready for the 7 a.m. start. I eat two waffles slathered in peanut butter and honey, swallow three Tylenol, drink a glass of orange juice and a splash of coffee, and begin sipping Gatorade. As always, the night before, I pinned my race number to my shirt, found some comfortable socks, made sure I had sunscreen. I catch the Metro in time to get to RFK Stadium for a short warm-up run.

Now, all I can do is wait for the race to begin. As I squeeze into the starting area with 10,000 other runners, I feel the familiar rush of excitement and anxiety. We share an unspoken appreciation of how difficult it has been to get to this point.

Centrowitz says I should hold a 10-minute pace for the first 13 miles and then, if I can, speed up slightly. By then, he says, fatigue will prevent me from going too fast. It is a conservative strategy, designed for a 4:22 finish that would beat my best time by 11 minutes.

I cross the starting line, and, to my delight, the 14 weeks of training kick in immediately. I run faster than I ever have, with less effort. My neck and shoulders don't ache as they often do. I am moving smoothly, except for some tightness in my legs, gliding on the flats, taking the hills easily.

For 20 miles.

Marathons, unfortunately, are 26.2 miles long. That's the distance the Greek messenger Pheidippides ran from Marathon to Athens in 490 B.C. to announce a military victory over Persia. Then he dropped dead.

I start becoming dehydrated in a little more than three hours. I have been drinking heartily at each water table, but soon my leg muscles begin to lock up in familiar fashion, and my pace slows from an average of 10 minutes a mile to more than 13. Every few hundred yards, I have to stop to knead the spasms from my legs and back. Panic and dread are setting in.

I am somewhere on the rolling hills of Minnesota Avenue in Anacostia with one card left to play. "The mind controls the body," I say to myself over and over again, a mantra I chose before the race, a common marathoning tactic for difficult times. It helps but only a little. Adequate hydration, it seems, controls the mind.

I don't remember much about the last mile except that I ran parts of it with my eyes closed. I remember my despair as the chance to improve my time slipped away. In the medical tent, the emergency personnel tell me I am gray and slurring my words. They put two liters of saline into me through an IV, and an hour later, I am fine.

Later, via e-mail, Beven, who once spent a night in intensive care after suffering heat stroke during a race, is gracious. Centrowitz tells me on the phone that larger guys are not meant to run marathons, especially in 70-degree heat. We talk about fluid and salt intake, what I might have done wrong. He kindly makes excuses for me, and in my disappointment, I let him.

Yes, I finished the race, in 4:39:12, about six minutes slower than my previous best.

Something to work on next time.

***

Editor's note: On April 19, Bernstein finished the Boston Marathon in 4:27:12.

***

Lenny Bernstein is a Washington Post editor and co-writer of The MisFits, a health and fitness column. He can be reached at bernsteinl@washpost.com.

***

MARATHON RUNNING: Fitness experts weigh in. Interviews by Holly E. Thomas

The orthopedist: Marc Rankin, Orthopedic surgeon, sports medicine specialist

Knee pain and stress fractures are two of the more common conditions that can arise with sustained running. Running on hard surfaces, up and down hills, and on uneven surfaces all contribute to what we call "patellofemoral pain." Strengthening the thigh muscles and hip flexors can help maintain proper alignment of the patella and reduce the pain. Proper footwear is essential -- having flat feet can affect the alignment of the legs, causing the patellas to track outside of their normal groove.

The dietitian: Jim White, Registered dietitian and personal trainer

Carbohydrates need to contribute about 65 percent of the total diet ... whole grain bagels, brown rice, oatmeal, sweet potatoes. Water [intake] must also stay consistent, especially [when] running in the heat. Electrolytes need ... to be supplemented before, during and after long runs. A sports drink with 6 percent to 8 percent dextrose solution or a sports gel can be taken after 45 minutes into a run and supplemented with additional sports drinks, gels or fruit thereafter.

The cardiologist: Alfred Bove, Cardiologist and emeritus professor

Marathon training is based on endurance and attitude. It's a long, continuous activity where the biggest impediment is mental. If you're doing it right, your injury risks are not very high. A marathon requires motivation for training and completion, and most people, if they're healthy and motivated, can do it.

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