Competitive distance running and massive body mass don’t mix well. Granted, part of what makes distance running a great sport is that all shapes, sizes, and ages can participate and each competitor can aspire to reach their own goals and feel fulfilled from the experience while doing something good for their health. But, if you want to be really fast, take it from me: it really helps to be built like a Kenyan.
For 35 years, I have trained and competed as a competitive distance runner. In every day of those 35 years, I have been haunted by the reality that I chose a sport that is made for featherweights. Competitive distance running is grueling for everyone, regardless of one’s body mass. But for those who have the body mass of a Hummer rather than a motorcycle, distance running is particularly vexing. And you don’t need a Ph.D. in physics to know that it’s harder to initiate and propel the movement of a large mass through space as compared to a small mass. The sport of boxing has long understood the significance of disparities in body mass. You would never see a featherweight in the ring against a heavyweight–it would be an instant slaughterhouse scene. Yet, for the first two decades of my distance running career, competitive distance running did not recognize the reciprocal premise of this painfully evident reality – why would a 140-pound featherweight be compared directly to a 225-pound heavyweight in gauging success in distance running?
Much to my delight, that conspicuous oversight finally got resolved by the 1990s. Someone to whom I owe great debt of gratitude changed all that – for the better – in the mid-1990s. The term “Clydesdale” emerged to describe this category of “body-mass challenged” distance runners. Other names for this category that were considered were “Steamrollers, “German tanks,“ and “Those who should have stayed on the couch.” So I’m grateful for the label, “Clydesdale,” too. Typically, Clydesdales are men weighing 200+ pounds (but for today’s race, the Clydesdale division was 220+ pounds — that’s even better!) I latched on to the Clydesdale division two decades ago, which was a great confidence builder as I won or placed in the Clydesdale division in dozens of races, the pinnacle of which occurred in the late 90’s when I won the Clydesdale 20K National Championship at the New Haven Road Race in New Haven, Connecticut in 1996, 1997, and 1999.
So, at the risk of stating the obvious, whenever a road race gives me the opportunity to be compared against those who are of comparable body mass, I respond by saying, “Hell, yes!” I have spent my entire racing career having to compete against (and struggle to outperform) scrawny competitors who are on average 50+ pounds lighter than I am. This was also true even when I competed as a varsity high school cross country athlete and weighed 190 pounds when the average competitor weighed about 150. And so begins the story of my Thanksgiving Day stampede at the DeLand Thanksgiving Day 10-miler.
Ideal weather conditions beckoned us on race morning as my son, Alek, and I dragged ourselves out of bed at 5:00 AM. Temps were in the mid-40s at the start with low humidity, no chance of rain, and gentle sunshine that would yield a high of only 68 degrees much later in the day. I couldn’t have engineered better race conditions for this 10 mile run if I tried. Alek and I discussed some pre-race strategy, which went something like this: “What kind of pace are you shooting for?” Alek inquired. I responded, bluntly, “I want to hold a 7:45 pace until I can’t hold it any more.” To which Alek replied, “Are you sure? You haven’t raced since February, your training hasn’t been close to what it should have been the past few months, and you’re old.” While he was absolutely correct on all three points, I didn’t appreciate his lack of faith in my ability to rise up against all odds. And I would prove him wrong in the end, which is always gratifying.
Alek has paced me in several races in the past five years and he always helps bring out my best. He was particularly attentive in his role as my pacer today. He would turn his head and ask if I wanted water as we blazed past water stations, to which I would loudly grunt, “NO!” I rejected his offer of water every time for several miles until he finally stopped asking. It’s very dangerous for someone my age and size to run a blazing fast 10-mile race without consuming a drop of water, but I was simply too tired and too “in the zone” to disrupt my mojo with trying to throw fluids down my throat. We maintained a 7:47 pace for the first several miles (the second and ninth miles were slightly slower due to rolling hills) and we finished the race with a 7:50 in the final mile, which hurt IMMENSELY. Alek was urging me to pick up the pace, turning his head to look back at me to make sure I was with him. I never heard what he said throughout the race when he would turn and grunt something at me, but I got the idea. “Run faster, old man,” was the gist of it, I think. My cardiovascular stress in that last mile led to a serious lack of oxygen-rich blood flow in my legs, which caused me to tighten up something fierce in that last mile.
Thanks to Alek’s impeccable pacing service (running just five yards ahead of me for the entire race), I ran an impressive time of 1:18:38 (7:52 per mile pace) and placed 79th of 310 runners (top 25%) in this fast field. My time was 1 minute and 20 seconds faster than my last 10-mile race two years ago. So, while I may be getting older, that’s OK as long as I’m getting FASTER, Alek. And the icing on the cake was that I placed first of ALL of the Clydesdales in this race (those that were 40+ years – my division — and those that were below 40 as well). The nearest Clydesdale competitor was more than five minutes behind me.