Best Running Lessons

One of the joys of running is that every time you step out the door you may learn something valuable. Often the best running lessons you learn are also your best life lessons. This week, Mike shares some thoughts on one such lesson.

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Strangely, my best running lesson happened before I was a runner and I am still learning from it. My best friend growing up in San Jose and in College at Berkeley was Paul. Paul had polio when he was a kid but recovered and became a great athlete. He had tremendous eye-hand coordination and excelled in all aspects of sport using that skill. He would beat me and everyone else, like a drum, shooting hoops, in golf, pitching and hitting the baseball, ping pong, and as quarterback.

But Paul wasn’t that big and was overweight and had no speed. So he became a playground legend rather than a high school or college star, although he did achieve some competitive success in golf. His leg speed was legend but for the wrong reasons. All the proper nicknames applied – molasses, ice flow, continental drift, backward. He was slow with a capital S, L, O, and W.

Paul headed off to Santa Barbara for his last few years of college and came back a different person. He grew several inches and started running before running was cool. When I saw him after a year break he was a different person. Slim, tan, and more confident. When he challenged me to a running race I thought he was joking.

A running race? Certainly I could never lose to “molasses” Paul. But why do it? He wanted to race two miles on the track the next day and I started my bidding at 200 yards in two weeks. This race could very well be won or lost in the negotiation stages. We decided it would be fun and settled on the classic mile distance. No spectators – just mano a mano. San Jose City College track in a week.

I trained a bit over the next week, but really knew very little about running. Race day was very warm and I decided the best strategy was to just stay at whatever pace Paul was running and then outkick him with a hundred yards to go. I had no doubt I would win. Paul was S. L. O. W.

The first lap was pretty tactical and I was very comfortable running alongside him. There was a lot of trash talk and he actually seemed to be laughing at me and smirking. He picked up the pace gradually on laps 2 and 3 and seemed very comfortable as I was gasping for breath and struggling by the end of lap 3. On the last lap he forged ahead about 10 yards, then 20, then more, and I could visualize myself defeated and demoralized. Losing to Paul would be a lifetime setback.

But just like in the movies, with my heart pounding, legs and arms like lead, I willed myself closer. My body said NO every step, then started yelling “Hell NO!” but my mind was stronger. It was a complete surprise and I put on a finishing kick and passed him with about 30 yards to go.

I had learned huge lessons that day. The human body can do miraculous things if you let it. Strength of will can carry you to success. I should have prepared more. There is great personal satisfaction in striving to be your best.

Now, forty some odd years later, I am still learning from that lesson and Paul. Paul, like so many others who had polio when children, had a ticking bomb inside. He is now stricken with post-polio syndrome. A disease most people have never heard of. The ravages of polio, due to weakened muscles, return later in life. Muscle weakness, trouble walking, trouble breathing, nerve damage, all return. My father, also a polio victim when a child, had the same debilitating disease later in life. It’s vastly unfair. Even more unfair in that they were both athletes.

While Paul has trouble breathing and walks using a walker, I can run marathons. While Paul takes tons of prescribed medications, I choose to take vitamins. While every effort is a struggle for Paul, I find things easy. While he is depressed and pessimistic, I am upbeat and optimistic. Certainly in his condition I would be depressed and pessimistic as well. Probably more than he is.

Do I feel guilty for being healthy? Actually, yes. Do I feel guilty when I see Paul? Actually, yes. Do I feel guilty that I can’t help? For sure. Do I feel I am lucky to be healthy and he is unlucky to not be? Yes. Do I feel I am in control of this luck? Unfortunately, I don’t.

Looking back on this seemingly unimportant mile race at San Jose City College 40 years ago, I now realize the biggest lesson was that I was in a situation where I ultimately controlled the outcome. My own will pulled me through. Also I realize that if Paul had been faster or better trained, I could have tried my best and still finished second, but I still would have known inside that I did my best. No guilt. No random acts. The win wasn’t the lesson, it was the total effort. It was about control.

Every time I run now I feel the same way. In control. Healthy. No Guilt. Life is fair. It’s when I stop that I have my doubts.


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What's a WNLR?

Quick - what does WNLR stand for? If you know the answer, you probably belong to (or know somebody in) our local running club. If you don’t know … just keep reading.

We’ve mentioned WNLRs in this column before but never really given them a proper introduction. And since we’ve finally run out of Big Sur Marathon stories for this year, we figured that it’s about time we did.

WNLRs are the heart and soul of the Monterey and Salinas running community. The official name of the club is the Monterey Bay Wednesday Night Laundry Runners – you can see why we prefer the acronym - and we are both long time members.

The club has about 260 members, who come from all walks of life. Many have been running for decades, but there are also a large number of beginners. The youngest member is 17 and there are several over age 70. The percentages of men and women are roughly equal.

The only qualification to become a member is to have a love of running. But that’s not to say there aren’t some serious runners. Over the years, a few WNLRs have become Olympians, and many others compete in local, regional, and national competitions.

The club’s origins go back more than 40 years, to a group of runners who met on a weekly basis every Wednesday night. The meeting place was near the Pacific Grove High School track, across the street from the Mission Laundry office. The club name makes perfect sense now, right?

The club’s newsletter is called the Communique, with the apt slogan, “All of the news of the fit in print”. It explains the club origin this way: a “loosely organized running club was formed one August in the Mid 1960’s after several runners ran as fast as they could through the Del Monte Forest for about an hour and then consumed large quantities of pizza and beverages.” That could pretty much describe many WNLR runs today, also.

The Wednesday Night Laundry Run continues to this day, and anyone is welcome to attend. The course is roughly 7 miles long run, traveling into the Del Monte Forest, up formidable Congress Hill, and past the Robert Louis Stevenson high school track before heading back to the start.

In the summer, the run starts at 5:30PM on the dot, so get there a bit early if you want to join them. Then feel free to follow the runners to a pizza joint or local pub afterwards.

There are regularly scheduled group runs on weekends, and smaller “splinter” groups in various areas during the week. The largest groups, that provide you with the best chance of finding someone at a compatible running pace, meet on Saturday morning at 7:15 near the foot of Ocean Avenue in Carmel, or Sunday morning at 8:30 at the Fishwife restaurant in the Asilomar area of Pacific Grove.

On the Salinas side, you’ll usually find a group of WNLRs at the Toro Park shopping center ready to run at 6:30 on Saturday or Sunday morning.

If you are inclined to do speedwork and run at the track, you can find WNLRs in clumps at Monterey Peninsula College on Monday nights at 5:30 or at Hartnell College in Salinas at 5:45AM on Thursdays.

So what’s in it for you if you join the WNLRs? In addition to improving your chances of getting in shape (that peer pressure thing is pretty powerful), membership is one of the best bargains in town.

For the unprincely sum of $10 per year, you get 4 to 6 newsletters per year, invitations to free pizza parties 3 or 4 times a year and other social activities. You also get 20% off shoes at The Treadmill store in the Carmel Crossroads, which may (depending on how many shoes you buy) fully offset your membership costs.

You also receive group e-mails telling you about events that are happening in the running community, and you’ll have access to great advice from fellow runners. Best of all, you’ll meet people who are very interesting and a lot of fun. There are certainly worse ways to spend ten dollars.


WNLR Scholarships

Another great thing about the WNLRs is the way they give back to the Central

Coast community in many ways. For example, this spring, WNLR members (along with a generous donation from the Big Sur Marathon) presented over $8,200 in college scholarships to deserving high school senior distance runners.

The WNLR Scholarship committee received nominations from local cross country and track coaches, and made decisions based on very difficult criteria. Scholarships were awarded only to those with high academic achievement, love of running, demonstrated leadership, extracurricular activities, success in running competition, and a rigorous interview. Winners must be planning on continuing their running at either a 2 year or 4 year college.

This year’s winners are Hector Aleman (Seaside), Mark Blucher (Alvarez), Francisco Cornejo (North Monterey), Thea Lee (Carmel), Shannon McVannel (Salinas), Steven Otero (Palma), Ty Rothstein (Carmel), and Cynthia Toth (Carmel). Congratulations to all of them.

These runners exemplify all that is great about running, and reflect the spirit of the

WNLRs. We wish them continued success in college and beyond. And if they eventually settle down in Monterey or Salinas, we’d be proud to have them join the WNLRs for life.

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