A New Challenge

The world majors are the most recent installment in a series of adventures that began long ago. To understand how we ended up at the majors, we’ll have to first go on a little jaunt down memory lane.

Baby

I was one in the handful of kids that looked forward to the yearly running of the mile in elementary school.

For those too young to remember, or perhaps the non-Americans among you, the mile was a component of the Presidential Physical Fitness Award program from the 60s through the 00s. The program was meant to encourage kids to be active. If you performed well enough at a variety of physical tasks each year, you would receive a certificate that carried the president’s signature, as well as a blue patch displaying the presidential seal. NPR ran a story about the history a few years ago - apparently in the early years one of the tasks was intended to simulate grenade throwing!

It was no coincidence that I looked forward to the mile: it was my strong suit. I easily managed one of the best times in the class year after year. However, the schools I attended had no organized running sports. The yearly fitness test was the only chance I got to measure my favorite skill, and practice was limited to a little extra jogging around the week before. I was far from serious, but I already knew I had a knack for this thing.

A Beginning

Enter high school. I jumped at the chance to join the cross country and track teams. I found my way onto the varsity cross country squad as a freshman, and by the end of the season I had not only been to the sectional meet and overcome a few injuries, but I had also done some serious damage to the school’s all-time freshman leader boards. This was in no small part thanks to having serious competition from my teammates… and two math teachers as coaches.

My first track season went similarly. As a capable distance runner, the coaches had no qualms about putting me in 3 or 4 races per night. The Simo Special was the 3200m, 1600m, and an adrenaline-fueled anchor leg on the 4x400m relay. That also meant I was usually the last runner in the last event for the whole meet - no pressure. I think I’d make a pretty lousy dictator, but I must say there was something kind of special about rounding the last turn of the night, with winning points riding on me, and hearing the whole team roaring my name.

I think that was the year I ran my first sub-5 mile. I placed 6th in that race. Good competition keeps you sharp.

One of my vivid memories from that era is running a rough practice in the sweltering Chicago heat - alongside a cemetery - with coaches driving up and down a busy road in a pickup truck hollering splits at us. Amusingly I also have the opposite memory of a winter practice. The track coaches had decided conditions outside were too much and watching an inspirational movie might be a better use of the day’s practice. I defied them and took the team out for a run in the blizzard.

Go Vikings
Go Vikings

Angst and Feelings

Unfortunately, high school running was all uphill from there. It turns out I achieved my best times freshman and sophomore year, and somehow lost the motivation, competition, and coaching fit necessary to keep improving. I’ve never pinned down which factor hit hardest, and it doesn’t really matter now. Running is as much about physical ability as it is about mental strength.

This story would not be complete without a Mr. Dan Horyn. He died at of cancer at only age 34. He was one of the most energetic passionate people you could imagine. A normal day for him included bouncing off the walls and literally running down the halls from class to class. A very accomplished runner himself, he also made a great coach, and became mine after the previous retired.

To illustrate the kind of coach he was, I remember a time Horyn had run around the woods and hid instructions under rocks and trees. The workout was sort of like a orienteering: find the clue at one waypoint, and follow the instructions to the next (eg. “run HARD to the next bridge north, cross it, and look behind the maple tree on the right”). At the time I thought this was a bit of a silly workout and that practice might have been better spent running a grueling 20x400m. What I didn’t fully appreciate back then was that Horyn was simply trying to create an adventure and awake our passion for the sport - the same way he experienced it.

In more recent years I’ve branched out into trails, travel, and challenging terrain. Running has become an adventure for me too, and I find myself thinking back on my days with Coach Horyn quite a bit. His ghost pops into my head and encourages me to press on in those post-20 marathon miles. Not just press on, but wholeheartedly enjoy the experience.

Higher Eduation

Beer pong is totally a sport, right? I went for a long run down the country roads once in a while. Country roads in Illinois conveniently create a perfect 1-mile grid pattern for historical reasons. Notable, I also received a Polar HRM as a Christmas gift one year. I used it sporadically at the time but this would turn out to have a huge impact on my training several years later. Moving on.

A New Hope

I landed in California, and the great outdoors began to call my name. Some friends took me hiking on trails and was instantly hooked on running them too. Once in a while I’d sign up for a half marathon, but I didn’t have much of a grand plan or ambition. I started placing in some of the smaller local races, but running remained a meditative escape to the outdoors from my otherwise immobilizing desk job.

And then I signed up for the Chicago Marathon. Almost on a whim. It was 2013. I had no idea what I was doing, but recognized that I needed a new challenge. Friends and family had run tons of them… why shouldn’t I? I ran well, despite not even having a particular goal time in mind. My debut marathon clocked in at 3:00:45. I was hobbling like a 95 year old man the following week and feeling some serious regret. But that was annoying close to 3:00:00…

Chicago, 2013
Chicago, 2013

So I obviously signed up again for 2014. 2:48:50 - and I walked away feeling amazing! Oddly enough this did not feel at all like breaking the 5 minute mile. It felt a whole lot better.

I had gone down the rabbit hole. I quickly joined a running club. I began signing up for a smattering of halves and the occasional 5k. On trail, on road, whatever I could get. I started training more seriously and studying various routines and strategies. I bought the right shoes and gear. I signed up for Chicago several more times (I now hold a legacy entry), and decided I should really run Boston since I had qualified and all. That’s when it began to click… if I qualify for this, what else can I do?

A Challenger Appears

The answer came more quickly than I thought: The World Majors. A hard-fought lifetime achievement for most. I found myself staring at the very real possibility that I could pull off all 6 in a single year.

It would not be easy. I would first have to secure my place in each, which is not always as simple as sending in a screenshot of a past result. I’d also have to plan a whole year around all of the training and travel. The races are clustered in the spring and the fall - with a mere 6 days separating Boston and London in the spring, and only 14 between Berlin and Chicago in the fall. I would also have to avoid injury at all costs - which could be catastrophic to this once-in-a-lifetime shot. But I also found myself unwilling to compromise and run slow times to be safe. Striking the right balance would be the real challenge.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be covering the entries, the training, the local pre-race foods, and of course the races themselves! Are you ready?