May 24, 2016

Jason Koop's book is worth reading, if you're at all interested in ultras

A link to the book

You probably don't need to read past the headline, but, here are some specific thoughts (not really a review) in a very non-specific order:

1) Nowhere does the book claim to be for advanced or experienced runners--and indeed, it makes frequent reference to those whose goal is, say, a 30-hour 100--but I'd suggest it is better suited for that demographic. Not just because the training is intense--though it is--but because there isn't a ton of hand-holding. There aren't any plans. His argument is, he can't coach you without coaching you. And so, if you don't have a coach, you have to coach yourself. Newer runners may not have the experience needed to make smart, consistent decisions, however. And they certainly might not have the confidence to do so.

2) The book helpfully avoids outlandish claims, and guru-ism. Which is not to say it's precisely typical of ultra-training advice--it isn't--just that Koop cites the hell out of his claims. To put it too simply, he's very much an "exercise science" coach, not a "because this has always worked" coach. Again, that's a bit of a false dichotomy, but is nonetheless useful is describing his approach. If you're the sort who believes the way to train for ultras is to run as much as possible, because shit, it's a fucking long footrace, what else would you do?, you will probably be sick to death of the extensive physiological justifications for everything.

3) So, about that training. It is intense. In specific blocks, it even makes some of Daniels' more rep-intensive phases look decidedly moderate. (Though his workout as far more simple. You really can memorize everything you need to know about his workout structures in a few minutes, and indeed, it's all in one small table. This, to me, is a feature, not a bug.) Koop's contention is that, to force an adaptation--especially in an experienced athlete--you have to apply increasingly severe stress. One hill workout a month, performed at a mediocre effort, isn't going to provide significant stimulus. And that is, primarily, his concern: Build the biggest engine possible, then--and only then--get specific. Historically, one might call this base building, and put the focus on high-end aerobic running. Lydiard 101, basically. Koop is more like Canova, though, in flipping this prioritization scheme. Get fast, then work to extend that speed. Some will note--and have--that his blocks are unsustainable. He'd say that's the point, that if you always train similarly and cautiously, you won't get much better.

4) I'll give this a separate section, just for emphasis: As much as his focus on intensity might momentarily lead you to believe otherwise, his is not a low-volume approach. But the volume exists as support for and a result of the quality work, not as a goal in and of itself. He treats long runs--usually the keystone of ultra-plans--similarly: Useful, but not wisely pursued at the expense of quality. His argument here is essentially--and this is where I come back to this approach probably being best for someone who has been running for a while--that high mileage and long runs yield benefits over months and years, not weeks. If you've been running 50 miles a week for five years in a row, he would suggest you're unlikely to get significant physiological benefit from a plan that focuses on long runs (at the expense of other sessions). To him, long runs are for fueling and pace practice, and building confidence. These things are valuable, but inessential.

5) You'll probably disagree with some of his prescriptions, but he does justify them with lots of citations. For those who like a "why" with their "what", this will be appreciated. Being in this camp myself, I especially enjoyed his explanations of what each type of run he prescribes is supposed to do. It is, in my estimation, the best lay-person primer on endurance physiology out there. (Magness' The Science of Running is more extensive, but probably beyond what the average person wants to wade through. The formatting, editing, and writing also fall a bit short, comparatively.) Perhaps the best thing about this approach is that--although he hates this metaphor--he's teaching you to cook, not just handing you a cake. Whether you end up opposite every one of his conclusions, you'll probably learn quite a bit to apply to your own training.

6) Ultras are more than fitness, however, so there is extensive focus given to foot maintenance, how much to eat, etc. Being honest, I... skimmed these parts. They're useful, but less interesting reads (to me). Same goes for the several-page treatments given to some of America's most famous ultras. Were I going to run Leadville, I'd appreciate the course knowledge and tips. But I'm not going to, so.

7) This is a professionally published and co-written book. It's technically sound. In my first quick read-through, I noticed only one obvious typo. There is a slightly irritating tendency to reference a table that one has to turn a page to see--in academic publishing, we call this a facing pages violation--but that's never too obtrusive. There are little anecdotes by some of Koop's more noteworthy athletes--Dylan Bowman, Dakota Jones, Kaci Lickteig--inserted into the run of text. While this does break the flow of reading sometimes, I suppose many will find these sections interesting. Given Koop's stated disdain for n = 1 data, though, they do seem a little out of place.

8) Koop does dismiss rather casually of a lot of ancillary concerns. He doesn't have a stated opinion on shoes or diet (other than that LCHF is misguided, insofar as it compromises intensity), and believes cross training is almost always time that could be better spent running more (or recovering from harder running efforts). Personally, I think there's quite a bit of evidence that strength training supports endurance adaptations, and provides unique benefits that running more wouldn't cover. Others will swear that cycling saved their running, that optimizing fat burning--by eating a high percentage of it--is the key to endurance, etc. But I don't suppose we're ever going to have all the answers to these things. The book claims to provide Training Essentials, however, so perhaps Koop would argue these are fringe concerns in any case.

9) You should buy this if you're a training/exercise science geek, or an experienced ultrarunner, who thinks they've maximized adaptations from a traditional (mostly easy) volume-focused approach. In terms of marathon training books, it's probably most similar to the Hanson's approach--speed to strength to specificity--but with way more science words, and clearer periodization. I'd say Canova is perhaps even closer, but he hasn't written a book in English, so that's something of a guess. Still, the focus on quality and intensity over volume (once a runner has, to use a Canova term, built their house) seems similar to me. That is, it's nice to have a base. But you have to build up and out if you want to fit more shit in, eventually.

10) I don't know if this is the best plan, or set of principles, or whatever. I'm not a scientist or a coach or fast enough to have an official opinion on such things anyway. But it's a good book.

May 19, 2016

A Transcribed Ian Thompson Interview from the 1975 Marathon Handbook

The following is a transcribed interview, including all the inconsistencies and typos. See the previous post for further explanation.


Ian Thompson--2:09:12
by Dave Cocksedge

"I always enjoy my training. It's never been a chore to me..."

"I'm never too bothered about others in any race..."

"I've been running for more than 10 years at club level, without a great deal of success..."

It could be any of a thousand fun-runners talking, runners whose biggest dream in life is breaking three hours at Boston. Ian Thompson wasn't much different from them until October 1973, and he still doesn't think much differently.

Thompson entered marathoning almost accidentally. His team needed an extra man for the scoring in the British national championship. Ian volunteered, and won in 2:12:40. That race qualified him for the Commonwealth Games. He won again there, with 2:09:12--the second fastest marathon ever. Since then, he has won the Athens and European races, both in the 2:13s.

After the last one, he reportedly said, "The only person in the world who can challenge me now is Frank Shorter." Perhaps he was misquoted, since this doesn't sound at all like the Thompson pictured here.

Ian Thompson, 5'6 and 126 pounds, was born Oct. 16, 1949. He is a graduate student in Spanish.

How fast do you think you can run a marathon, judging from the experiences in those you've done?

I think I can go faster (than 2:09:12), provided I pace myself more sensibly over the first half of the race. There were certain things against me before the Commonwealth race. My training was interrupted by two bad colds, as well as other factors. Given time, and they say a marathon runner reaches his peak at about the age of 28, I will definitely run faster than 2:09. That gives me another for years.

I think I overdid the first half at Christchurch (Commonwealth Games). I went through the turn in 1:03 and took 1:06 for the second half, whereas if I'd run a 1:04 first half, maybe I could have run another one for the second half to finish in 2:08.

Can you describe a typical week's training?

Sure. Sunday's, I do a long run--about 28-30 miles. Every lunch hour from Monday to Friday, I do a six. On a Monday, I run another six in the evening. Tuesdays, I do a track session in the evening. Wednesdays, I run two easy road runs, then Thursday another track session. On a Friday, I run either a track or hill session in the evening. Saturdays, I either race or do another fairly long run. I like to get the long run in, and then fit the rest of my sessions around that.

What s your ideal number of top-class marathons each year?

I think no more than two major ones a year--like Commonwealth and the European (in 1974). I could probably get away with a couple minor races as well, but two really big ones a year is plenty to get on with. I mean, you're asking a man to hit a peak twice within a year, and physically and mentally that requires a lot of careful planning and hard work.

What about thoughts of Montreal in 1976? Does the prospect of that volume of training until 1976 daunt you at all?

Well, I live very much day to day with my running, so I've hardly ever bothered to think that far ahead. I always enjoy my training. It's never been a chore to me. I'm quite used to high mileage now, as I've been averaging 140 a week at times since I was 21. I've built up a background of heavy mileage over the years, so the thought of a few more doesn't scare me. I simply love running for the sheer hell of it.

When I ran 14:05 for 5000 in 1971, I was on that sort of hard road work. I believed firmly in Lydiard training for the track. It didn't really work for me then, but now I think I'm beginning to reap the benefits from it. Obviously, it was ideal preparation for the marathon.

Don't assume that I'm running 140 a week all the time, though. Mostly I supposed I average 90, but occasionally bump it up to 140. When I tried to average that figure week in, week out, I found I couldn't cope with it. My body didn't have time to recover.

What are your feelings about racing a fit Frank Shorter?

 Well, I read an article on him some time ago and I was impressed. Obviously, the Olympic champion must be good. But with a 27:51 10,000, he's got almost frightening speed as well. I'd love to race him, but I'm never too bothered about others in any race. When I'm out there, I'm out to run my best and let everyone else do their own thing, so to speak.

It's what you do on the day that counts, isn't it? I've no doubts that Shorter will be tough to beat. But when I'm against him, I won't worry about him in any way.

In your interviews, you've always tended to adopt a low profile, always claiming not to be overly impressed or even greatly aware of the reputation of your rivals. Is that genuine or assumed attitude?

Well, I don't spend time reading up on other runners. Basically, I run to get the maximum out of myself. And to be honest, tactics in marathon races are just not on in that sense. You've got to pace yourself and run to your own capabilities, so what's the use in knowing everything possible about the men running against you?

But then on the other hand, I don't deliberately go out of my way to be in total ignorance of rivals. Knowing more about other runners has virtually been forced on me in the last months, since I came through into the big-time. I mean, in Christchurch, I couldn't very well not know the others, since I was surrounded by them and got to know them as people as well as reputations.

There are many athletes who I think spend far too much time worrying about others in their event, and this is not a very healthy attitude. There are other things in life besides running. I just like to do my training, and then I don't really want to know for the rest of the day. I'd rather spend it on another activity. I believe in keeping it in it place. I don't even bother to watch athletics on television unless I happen to be in and something is on. I won't go out of my way to watch it.

What do you think about when training and racing?

Racing is entirely different from training. Frank Shorter said that marathons, when one is running well, are compressed into about three-quarters of an hour in thinking time, and I found this--especially in Christchurch. I was pressing myself forward all the time so much that there was little time to think about anything else except my form. I had sensation of time dragging by.

You know, two hours and nine minutes sounds a long time, but it seemed to go by pretty fast during the actual run. Odd thoughts flash through your head, like, "What will I do first after finishing?" or, "I wonder if my friends and family are watching, or if they know how well I'm going today?"

Training runs can be tough mentally, though. I can think of a recent long run. It was a murderous thing. I felt tired and heavy. I wasn't flowing as well as I'd like to, and time was dragging by. I kept thinking of the work I should have been doing at home, and anything and everything really, just to fill up the time until I could finish.

Do your regard mental preparation to be important for racing?

Yes, very important. For me, this means staying relaxed and not thinking hard about the big race beforehand. Relaxation is very important. I was relaxed before my first marathon because I wasn't particularly expecting anything earth-shattering. And, strangely enough, in the Commonwealth I was relaxed too, with a sort of quiet confidence. I was happy about a lot of other things in life besides my running. Everything was clicking, and I was in a relaxed frame of mind--which is ideal.

From what you've learned in your first year of marathoning, what advice for a novice attempting a marathon for the first time would you offer?

Train! Do a lot of training for it. That will give you the confidence as well as prepare you physically. Long runs regularly will give you the relaxed rhythm you need.

With the increasing pressure you've obviously experienced since winning the Commonwealth and European titles, how long do you think you'll be able to exist at the top level?

I don't really know. The deciding factor will be the sort of job I get. At the moment, I have the freedom to train all I want, though my studies have inevitably suffered since October 1973. If the job makes demands which encroach on training and racing time, then they have to go.

This is the case for professional athletes. If one can devote onesself exclusively to racing, one can have a long and useful career in the sport. But as an amateur, a man has to work and earn himself a decent living wage. The successful amateurs are people who have been able to fit their job in with their training, with the athletics having first consideration.

Would you continue with athletics even without further success?

Oh, yes. You've got to remember that I've been running for more than 10 years at club level, without a great deal of success to spur me on. As I said earlier, I would run just for the pure love of running. I mean, if I lived just for racing, it wouldn't be enough. Races are over in a flash, relatively speaking, after a lot of building up for them. So it's the enjoyment of the training that keeps me going too.

It's a weird sort of pleasure, but it works. You know, you get a feeling of satisfaction after you've forced yourself to get out for a long run on a wet and windy day when you'd rather stay indoors. Besides that, when I'm out on my own, feeling fit and the running is coming easy on a bright sunny day, I'm flowing along the roads and it's just good to be alive and well, enjoying the sensation. It's a pleasure in itself, really.

I think if I ever got to the stage where I'd be constantly worrying about my form and unable to enjoy my training, I'd give up racing.

What else excites you besides running and racing?

Hard to say, really. Not a great deal. Dancing occasionally, and the very occasional drink. I'm a pretty placid type of bloke. I don't have many ups and downs in life; just prefer to take things calmly as they and as they come along. At parties and socials, I'm quite happy to take a back seat and let other people get the attention. You wouldn't call me the life and the soul of the party; just part of the audience, perhaps.


Thompson would not, as it happened, run faster than 2:09:12--although he would continue marathoning with some success until 1987. I cannot find anything regarding what manner of job he ended up with. 

May 18, 2016

1975 Marathon Handbook: An Introduction

I got this book--used, obviously--for a penny. The anachronisms are plenty, and a bit amusing. They list every man who ran a marathon under three hours in 1974, explicating his time, age, and home state. For women, they set the bar at four hours, and list the same information. I won't reproduce that here, for reasons that are probably obvious. There are, however, two interviews, along with an editor's note and a 'how to train' article. I will transcribe each of them.

Generally, I wouldn't do this. I buy books, and little else. Supporting that industry matters a great deal to me, because books matter a great deal to me. But this book is out of print, and the publishing company that produced it no longer exists (although the magazine for which the editors worked--Runner's World--obviously does), so I'm not greatly concerned about receiving a note from any lawyers. Moreover, I enjoyed reading these items, and I don't think they're easily available online. It'd be a shame not to give them a platform, however small mine is.

It goes like this:
Ian Thompson--2:09:12 (by Dave Cocksedge)
Jacki Hansen--2:43:54 (by Bill Cockerham)
Making Your Own Time

Tonight, I'll just write-up the editor's note that precedes the proper articles. Ideally, I'll do one interview each of the next two evenings, and the training article Saturday. I may provide a little commentary after each piece, but I won't insert any into the actual works, or edit things in any way. That said, away we go.



It was January 1970, and I'd jumped from an established magazine, Track & Field News, to a then-smaller one with a new name, Runner's World. My first assignment was to help Bob Anderson finish a booklet on the marathon. I wondered then if there were enough marathoners and enough interest in marathoning to warrant a special publication like this.

I ran marathons but didn't see too many other people doing it. How many could there be? A thousand or so, with most of them clustered around Boston. How many races were there? Maybe a dozen, mostly on the coasts.

Bob put down my doubts by handing me a folder full of statistics he'd collected. The figured indicated that about 2000 Americans were running marathons. More than 1100 ran at Boston in 1969. Forty-six races were scheduled in the US for 1970. Those numbers sounded big then.

In early 1970, the big names in marathoning were Derek Clayton, Ron Hill and Jerome Clayton. Clayton had just improved his world best time, Hill had won the European championship, and Drayton had run 2:11. The top two Americans were Kenny Moore and Ron Daws.

We couldn't have known then what we were getting into with the Marathon Handbook. Five editions later, there are many more than three times as many runners and racing opportunities. Ten times as many Americans run under 2 1/2 hours in 1974 than back then.

Derek Clayton has retired. He said in an extraordinary retirement announcement, "I lost the desire to continually thrash myself. I can say now that I hated every moment of my training." Hill and Drayton have been frustrated in recent years, unable to match their old form. Moore and Daws are in semi-retirement, still running well but not as seriously as before.

Ian Thompson wasn't doing much running in 1969. Now he's the second fastest ever. Back then, Frank Shorter was a senior at Yale. He'd won his first national title, the NCAA six-mile, but his fist marathon was still years away. Five years ago, Tom Fleming was in high school and hadn't run a marathon. He has finished second in the last two Boston marathons.

There were no women listed in the 1970 Handbook. The number who tried marathons then could be counted on one foot. But by 1974 they had their own national and international championships, 17 of them broke three hours, and the 100th best time was almost as fast as the pre-1970 world best. Jacki Hansen's mark is 25 minutes faster than that one.

The booklet, like the sport, has expanded from its modest beginnings. Marathoning is still the central theme because the marathon is the most important long distance race. But it isn't the only one. As the marathon grows, so do the shorter and longer runs, and the race walks. We'll cover them here until they're big enough to have booklets of their own.

The marathoners could barely fill the first booklet. We had to pad it with reprinted articles to reach 52 pages. Now the marathon statistics alone go longer than that. But as the lists grow, the individual times on them aren't devalued. Just the opposite. Each new one represents a person who never before thought he or she could go so far, so fast.

Joe Henderson


Henderson, of course, literally wrote the book(let) on Long Slow Distance. It's a name he would come to regret a bit, because the point was never that the running was slow, but that it was easy, so you could do a lot of it, and sustain your (mental and physical) health. I'd say more, but you can actually read the entire booklet on Henderson's website, here. I'd recommend doing it; the entire thing is very short, interesting, and misquoted.

May 17, 2016

I am sitting in my car, on the first day of my 28th year alive, which I spent as follows: Four steady in the morning; four easy at noon; four easy in the afternoon; six reps til gasping, then flailing--this is how I determine VO2max pace--up Lawrence's biggest hill in the evening.

I didn't run my age, which is a thing people do, nor did I train for any races I haven't yet signed up for. But I fucked around outside, which is probably more fun than any of that anyway.

May 12, 2016

Habits, like records, are made to be broken. I'm not sure anyone has said that--much less anyone wise, or quoteworthy--but I'm trotting it out as a way of explaining my lack of writing over these last few months. (At least, my lack of writing here. I have written about 200,000 words of fiction in the last year, which I really don't plan on or want to do anything with.)

Anyway, let's make up for that a little. A brief recap:

I ran the Topeka to Auburn Half Marathon, the kind of low-key local race that people tend to call a "gem", and with reason. You begin and end in grade school cafeterias, and between them, you churn up and over gravel roads in between Kansas' capital, and a smaller town you haven't heard of.

I won the Pi Day River Rotation Trail Half Marathon for the third consecutive year. I held up three fingers as I crossed the line, which was immediately embarrassing.

I kicked--or rather, walked in to while staring at my phone--a dumbbell, and took a few weeks off from running.

I then ran the Cherry Creak Sneak 10 Miler in Denver. About which I can say, altitude does make a difference when you're running at a decent effort, and not training for a month isn't great race prep.

Which is not to say I sat around, morosely listening to Morrissey, eating ice cream and letting my legs turn to sloth. I certainly exercised. I lifted. I biked. I rowed. I ellipticaled fiercely.

But exercising isn't training, which is a thing you know, and I knew, but which I--and you too, probably, from time to time--sort of pushed away. Cognitive dissonance is a powerful thing, and so I thought, the cardio is there, I'll hammer and the legs will respond. They did, of course, but mostly with searing insults and cramping.

I've been thinking about that a lot lately. Training. What it is, and what it's for. There are of course micro-level debates. Are you MAF or Hadd, when it comes to HR training? Or, do you think that's a relatively useless metric regardless? What exactly constitutes "speed work" during the base, and for that matter, why are we worried about it? Do we train systems, or focus strictly on race pace?

I love these questions, because I'm a strange obsessive, who spends entirely too much time reading this stuff--two more books in the mail!--for someone who doesn't coach, and isn't very fast. But I also love them, I think, because they speak to the fundamental human desire for agency, and control.

It's seductive, isn't it, to think that we know how something works, and moreover, how we can make it work. Believing that a second, midweek long run will be the difference between a marathon blowup and a rapturous PR is lovely, maybe even essential, because it gives form, focus, and faith to those weeks before the fateful date.

Essentially, there's some part of us that wants to believe that, as sportscasters are fond of saying, a team or player "controls their own destiny". It's an endlessly stupid line: If they control it, then it isn't destiny. But we aren't wholly rational beings, and believing irrational things is sometimes brilliant. If a plan promises us a PR, and we get it, then what's the problem?

This comes to mind:
"You will never be a national-class marathoner on 90 miles a week; you may never be a national-class marathoner on 140 miles a week. But the only shot you have is to go the 140 route. When you're 40 years old and beaten up, you'll know something about yourself that [naysayers] won't. You'll know if you could have been a national-class marathoner."
- Mike Platt, 2:18 marathoner
The appeal here is obviously not the accuracy. It's actually very easy to argue against, as plenty of men have run faster, on less mileage. But facts don't really matter when faced with such gritty, sweat-soaked truth(iness). It's totally bought in, believing in agency, in causality; it's a repudiation in itself of absolute doubt, and so satisfying for that. This, to me, is training.

There is still the question, however, of what training isn't. It strikes me as possible that one could run 100 miles a week for no reason but pleasure, while someone else could run 20 in pursuit of a 5K PR. Is the former still "training", while the latter isn't? Is it a question of intent, of function versus form?

In keeping with my lack of thesis, I'll similarly omit a conclusion: I don't really know where the line is. I think a lot about these things, but I think a lot about them because I don't know, and don't suppose that I can, really.

So, to bring it around to my own navel gazing, I suppose I should add that I don't really have a damn clue what I'm going to do the rest of this year. Some part of me feels the need to run a 100, or rather, to have run one. And maybe I could stack some other ultras around that? And my road marathon PR is still embarrassing. Need to fix that.

But another part of me notes that I've really found myself enjoying more moderate mileage, with a renewed focus on hills, track reps, and weights. (Not low mileage though, promise. This isn't a Crossfit kick.) I do believe I'd be best served doing the races such training predisposes me to--and that ain't 100s--rather than picking somewhat arbitrary goal races, then talking myself in to five hour long runs on trails that have way too many goddamn snakes for my liking.

I don't know. But I'm happy enough to indulge this ignorance--I've got plenty--and happy also to let it waft away during what we will call, for now, my daily exercise.