What does it take to become a good runner?
I guess that all depends on the definition of "good."
Coaches - nearly all of whom are much smarter than I, most have personal bona fides which exceed my own - are likely to say that outside of being blessed with genetically gifted parents it is absolutely necessary to have courage, a teachable spirit, and a work ethic that borders on masochism. A sense of humor, a sense of perspective and the ability to think when necesssary doesn't hurt.
Dale Fox, my coach back in the days of the Emerald Coast Racing Team, often reminded me "running is a sport of pace and patience." If he was reminding me in an e-mail the first quality would be spelled in all capitals. The second had the first quality capitalized within it (for those who have a hard time visualizing..."PACE and PAtienCE"...). The two are inextricably entwined, especially in championship-level racing.
Last month's NCAA Track and Field Championships were object lessons in the benefits of pace and patience, taught by men's 1,500 meter champ Mac Fleet, and Edward Cheserek, the men's 10,000 meter champion. The women's distance events were almost as tutorial, but Cheserek's performance in the men's 10K was patience exemplified.
Texas Tech's Kennedy Kithuka tried to force 'an honest pace' for the first eight kilometers, but he did not want to be in the unenviable position of front-runner. Cheserek, Oklahoma State's Shadrack Kipchichir and Wisconsin's Mohammed Ahmed patiently wore Kithuka down and spit him out at the ninth kilometer, after which point Cheserek only had to remain...yes, patient...for another 600 meters before dropping the hammer on the more-experienced Oklahoma State and Wisconsin competitors.
One of the best reasons to engage in a speed training regimen, in my opinion, is not that the runner develops raw speed. Over a period of time they also develop a sense of pace discipline. The first five or six weeks' worth of workouts - especially during the summer heat and humidity - lays a base foundation from which the athlete and coach can move. The athlete learns the coach's expectations and idiosyncrasies; the coach figures out strengths and areas which may need remediation.
Sometimes there are glaring, easily-noticed form issues which can be fixed without risk of injury. What are the changes in stride and body mechanics as the workout progresses? What is the athlete's endurance level? Do they need to have the reins pulled in early on so they can finish the workout on a high note?
Cheserek's pace during the race did not vary by more than two seconds from one lap to the next...save for the last one, when he ran a (completely insane) 53-second 400 after (648 feet shy of) six miles at 69 seconds a lap. For those of you playing the home game, that's about a 4:35 pace.
(I've done 16 times 400 meters, with 100-to-150 meters of walk recovery, at 72-to-75 seconds before. Eight more would have, on a good day, put me a lap to two laps down in comparison. However, it is more likely the effort would have put me in the hospital.)
That sort of work is the end-product of the genetics, courage, teachability and masochism I spoke of earlier. Not to mention five years of solid training. Probably lots and lots of 53-second quarters; the kind of stuff which makes 24 back-to-back 69s seem pretty darn, er, simple.
That's where the "genius factor" comes in. Lots of runners are capable of running 5:47 miles, or 86-second quarters. The genius part is tying three -- or twelve -- and-small-change of them together without fail to run that elusive sub-18-minute 5,000 meters on the road. Marathons, too, are a test of consistency; can you stay patient through the first hour when everyone feels hunky-dory, hooting and having a great time?
To do well in distance running often means learning what the "red line" on race day ought to be. Once you've figured that race day top end, then you collect efforts beyond that red line in small, manageable pieces. Once you have enough of those small manageable pieces, then you learn to put them together like a building block castle. At times it falls apart; you have to pick up your blocks and start over. Other times you find you didn't have enough blocks to finish the job.
But when it all comes together, ain't it a pretty sight?