Week 21: A runner's dilemma

Way back in September when I had never run before in my life and didn’t know any better, I started preparing for the marathon by running on my own.

By running I mean the dictionary definition of running, as articulated by the online Merriam-Webster: “to go faster than a walk; to go steadily by springing steps so that both feet leave the ground for an instant in each step.”

That’s pretty clear, and that’s what I was attempting to do, though I never got very far before having to stop and take a break.

Once I started the formal training program set up by AIDS Project Los Angeles, I learned that we would be following a “run-walk” method devised by Jeff Galloway, a former Olympic athlete and lifelong runner who has gone on to write many extremely popular books about running, including “Marathon: You Can Do It!”

marathon you can do it.jpg

Using the “Galloway method,” all participants were placed into pace groups based on their speed traversing a three-mile test course. Each group was then assigned a “run-walk ratio,” meaning the number of minutes we would run, alternated with the number we would walk.

For someone like me, this was welcome news. I could not imagine running five miles straight, as we were expected to do on our first group run, but I could easily run for three minutes. Who couldn’t?

And therein lies the genius of the Galloway approach. By breaking down a grueling, hours-long endurance test into easily digestible micro-thons, he was helping us overcome our fear of collapse and physical ruin.

Better yet, it worked. Week after week I’ve added miles to my run and week after week I’ve completed on pace and energized.

The walk breaks hadn’t diminished my sense of accomplishment. I used them to drink water, take a deep breath and regain that aforementioned spring in my step.

But once we hit the 16-mile mark, Coach Scott informed us that our ratio on the long runs was going to change. My group was told to switch from 3:1 to 2:2. Now our time would be split equally between running and walking.

This slight alteration was intended to keep us safe from injury and on course in our training. But for me, it heightened what had been a slight nagging question into a full-blown conundrum.

My friend Amy, who is also training for the marathon, had earlier asked me if, when telling people about my training mileage I felt a need to add a qualifier, as in: “I ran 14 miles today, but I walked part of it, too.”

No way, had been my response. It was plenty hard to cross the finish and it felt like running even when I wasn’t.

But that was back in the good old 3:1 days, where the majority of minutes and miles were in reality spent running.

Now that we were reduced to a 2:2, I felt more than a little equivocal making the running claim. Shouldn’t what I was doing have its own name, like walnning? Or rulking?

I decided to take my concerns to the source. I got in touch with Jeff Galloway through his website and arranged for a chat.

Speaking by phone from his home base in Georgia, Galloway explained --in the same easy manner that makes his books so appealing --that running is defined not by some rigid dictate, but by the do-er.

“I’ve been running now for 50 years and what I’ve discovered is that everybody who runs has an opinion on what running is all about,” he said. “It really doesn’t matter. Running empowers us to give opinions. It’s a free-form activity that unleashes a lot of positive things psychologically in us.”

Free-form? I'd never thought of it that way, though it's true that there are as many different running gaits as there are runners -- I recently spotted a woman running entirely on her toes.

The act of running itself, whether interspersed with bouts of walking or not, has proven health benefits that you can’t get from walking alone, Galloway told me. Physiologically, he said, the body interprets and benefits from run-walking in the same way as running. I can see the truth in that-- even when I walk half the time I still get the thrilling endorphin surge known as "runner's high."

Which takes care of inner space, but what about the outside world?

If it’s a test of macho-ness, or as Galloway put it, the “run ‘til you puke” crowd, walking will never be part of the program. But, he said, if you want to get in shape, run a marathon, limit your risk of injury and still have enough energy to hang out with the kids, the run-walk method is the way to go.

Galloway told me that he himself usually runs in alternating 30-second run-walk intervals. So he only runs half the time, too, and he's an actual, real-life, serious runner.

In addition to writing books about running, Galloway operates training programs for runners. Each year he takes a group to Greece, to the land of the original marathon. On one of his very first annual trips, he came upon a museum exhibit that included a newspaper clipping from one of the first modern marathons, held in 1896.

A reporter covering the event got himself a donkey cart and followed along with the runners, charting their course. The reporter's account describes nearly all of the runners taking significant walking breaks.

“I’ll bet the finishers of that marathon considered themselves runners,” Galloway said.

If it’s good enough for Galloway -- and the Greeks -- I guess it’s good enough for me.

4:21 PM Friday, February 20 2009 • Link •  
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