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Junque Miles:

By Mark Roberts

My First Long Run

What I think of as my first long run really wasn't. That is to say, I'd done quite a few 10-12 milers and at least one 15 mile before I did the first long run that stands out in my mind as such. The problem is that when you're a beginning runner, training for your first marathon, you build up your mileage slowly and pass through a long gray area between long runs and long runs, so you're never quite sure when you make the transition. In my case, an inadvertent jump in distance made the distinction very clear.

On the first day of 1995 I showed up at the Greater Rochester Track Club's annual New Year's Day race: 7.5 miles. I'd done a half marathon the previous fall and was considering making the move up to the marathon distance, so this seemed like a good way to start off the year. Just before the race was to begin I bumped into my friend Linda Grossman and asked her what pace she expected to run. "Oh, I'm not running the race," she said, "I just came out and did two laps of the course as a long run." To this very day I feel a surge of pride when I recall how nonchalant I managed to appear... while my brain reeled with the thought of someone doing FIFTEEN MILES as a training run! "Oh cool, I'll just see you later, then", I said as casually as possible - as if I did fifteen mile runs myself every other day just to break up the monotony between performing brain surgery and wrestling grizzly bears.

I'd met quite a few marathoners by that time. But Linda wasn't one of them, she was a regular runner like me. I was amazed that someone with roughly my level of experience could run 15 miles as if it was normal or something.

Two weeks later I ran two laps of the same course myself. But since I'd worked up to it gradually over the past six months, it didn't feel like a huge step to me. The 20-milers that I knew were in my future if I intended to run a marathon - now those were intimidating. But they were far away in the future.

Still chuffed after my fifteen mile adventure I entered another winter race a couple of weeks later. A "very approximate" 10k in Powder Mills park hosted by the Oven Door Runners, a local running group named for the bakery where they feasted after each run. By the time I finished the race I was very glad I'd recently added hill repeats to my training regimen. The course would have killed someone who did only "flat and fast" training! It was during the post-race socializing that I met the Oven Door Runners (ODRs) leader Bill Hearne, who invited me to run with them any Saturday.

So it was that I found myself in front of the Pontillo's Pizza in Bushnell's Basin, NY at 6:30 on a 20 degree February morning. To my amazement, there were about 40 other people there as well! Not only were there 40 people around who wanted to run long distances together, they were willing to get up before dawn to run 20 miles on a February morning when it was cold enough to freeze mercury! I wondered if there'd been something mixed in with the Gatorade at that race a couple of weeks prior.

Oh yes, it was a 20 mile run they had in mind. Based on my recent "longest ever" run of 15 I thought I had about as much chance of running 20 miles as Rush Limbaugh would have of buying his clothes in the Junior Petites section (or of Rush Limbaugh would have of running 20 miles, come to think of it). I'd planned on stepping up gradually: First to a 16-miler, then 17, then 18, etc. Sort of like lowering yourself into an ice cold swimming pool an inch at a time. Only it would take much longer. And in Rochester, NY in February, it would be a lot colder.

The bewildering course Bill Hearne described that morning had more turns than I could even count. I paid little attention since there were enough people present I assumed there'd be someone I could follow. Most importantly, Bill emphasized there were plenty of ways to shortcut the route to get a 17, 18 or 19 mile run. Whew! I decided to be a little bit bold and run 17 miles, an increase of two, rather than the one I'd planned for. I felt like a wild and crazy guy going for such a big increase in one run.

As everyone started off I met one of the other runners I'd gotten to know. I'd encountered Tom Lamme while doing repeats at Cobbs Hill and he seemed like a good person to hang out with. But only for a mile or so; he was running a pace that was quicker than I was comfortable with for long distance, even though he was an "old guy" (over 40!) so I let him go on ahead while I backed off a little. (Later that year I shared a room with him in Toronto for my first marathon - I struggled to a 3:22 while Tom ran 2:45, so I guess my decision to let him go ahead alone was the right one.)

I soon found three runners who were maintaining a pace that I found comfortable, Bill Hearne, Belinda O'Brien and Jim Davis. I couldn't have picked a better group for my first long run. And the company was especially appreciated as we turned onto the aptly-named High Street in the town of Victor. I had, of course, heard that the Oven Door Runners did some really long runs. And that they ran a lot of hills. But in my inexperience and naivete I just assumed that they'd never pick a route that was long and had a lot of hills. No one would be that crazy, right?

Stop laughing.

The three experienced runners coaxed me up the hills, shared their water with me and kept me entertained and distracted for the most part. Bill and Jim cracked jokes whenever they could get a word in between Belinda's stories. Out on the route, their friends who weren't running that day provided water stops. Pretty cool. I was pretty damned impressed.

I was also pretty damned lost. I suddenly realized that Bill's assurance that you could easily shorten the course applied only if you knew where the hell you were, where you were going and how to traverse the distance between. I had started the run in an area with which I had little familiarity and the long distance of the route provided ample opportunity to get right out into the boondocks, an opportunity which, I later learned, Bill Hearne always seized with an enthusiasm which, along with his penchant for gut-busting hills, earned him the nickname "Attila the Hearne". By 16 miles I realized that I had no choice but to follow the people I was with if I was going to have any chance of finding my way home. In short (pun intended), I'd be running the full 20 miles whether I wanted to or not.

A few miles after this, Bill announced "OK, here's where the run really begins!" My inexperience and naivete kicked in hard and I thought "Oh good, that must mean we're on the home stretch". Since we'd just climbed a hill I assumed (big whack of still more inexperience and naivete) we were about to hit a long downhill back to Bushnell's Basin and...

You're laughing again, aren't you?

What came next was Bluhm Road, a steep, mile-plus uphill with twists and turns and several false summits that make you think the top us just a few yards away, only to dash your hopes cruelly with a view of more hill ahead when you reach them. At least I beat Hearne to the top.

Fortunately there was another impromptu water stop at the top where I got to meet another ODR regular providing aid and comfort to the troops. Then again, perhaps these water stops weren't so fortunate after all. I'd never actually stopped running in my long runs, er... long run... before this, so I wasn't prepared for the way your legs lose their enthusiasm for resuming the pace after a few minutes of standing. We all lurched stiffly into motion again and set off for home. With a couple of uphill grunts still ahead.

With about a mile to go I finally recognized where I was and could make a sprint for home.

OK, I'm lying about the sprint for home. We ended coming down Garnesy road, probably the steepest hill in the area - just what your quadriceps need at the end of a 20-miler, right? But Jim Davis and I did pick up the pace a little when we reached level ground, which we greeted with the enthusiasm of a shipwreck victim finding dry land. The difference being that shipwreck victims don't wobble quite as much when they stand on the dry land.

Copyright © 2003 Mark Roberts

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