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Getting Back In Shape

by Weldon Johnson

October 5, 2000

Well, I'm on my way to Japan for the Izumo Ekiden. Every year for the last 8 years, a team of Ivy Leaguers has been invited to Japan for an Ekiden race. An Ekiden is a road relay race. Ekidens are extremely popular in Japan. We ran in a longer Ekiden 3 years ago when I last went on the trip. The race lasted approximately 4 hours and was point to point for about 50 miles. The entire course was packed with people on the sides of the street, and was shown live on national tv (sorry NBC very few up close and personals).

I've been taking the Fall a little bit more low key than usual in the sense that I am not running a marathon so there is not the one ultimate focus on the season. Doing well in this Ekiden is really important to me, because just out of college, this race was the biggest thing I did each year. It gave me something to train for, as I barely made the team my first year out of school. Plus, I have tremendous respect for Japanese distance running, and I want to show them that Americans (well our team actually isn't all Americans, as we have an Irishman on it), uhh Ivy Leaguers, are not only smart, but an run fast as well too. We have never done well in this race, and this is the last year I am eligible.

So I've been home (where my parents live) in Austin for the last month starting to gear up my training again. The hardest thing has been battling the heat. It was 112 degrees on Labor Day and was 100 degrees last week. It's impossible to get race sharp running in such heat because you are limited in your workouts. But that has been ok for me because I'm planning to peak this season in November.

Nonetheless, I have done 2 races in the last month. 2 collegiate cross-country races. My first two cross country races since I got out of college four years ago.

I enjoy running cross-country even though I hadn't done it in so long. I chose to do cross-country races because if I'm going to race, generally I'm doing it to get in the hardest effort possible which means I need to get with some good competition (which is often hard to find at the local road race - especially here in Texas where they hardly ever offer prize money). The best races available by far were the cross-country races. However, sometimes my coach is a bit impractical as I had to drive 500 miles to Stillwater, Oklahoma for one of the races because it was 8k (the proper distance)), while there was a road race with some money in Austin the same weekend that was 10k which would have provided some decent competition.

The first one was the SMU Invitational. It was held at my high school home course, Norbuck Park, in Dallas. It brought back memories as both my high school coaches were present. I finished 6th in that one running 25:28, and last weekend (September 30th) I went up to the Cowboy Jamboree in Stillwater, Oklahoma to finish 16th (I think) in 25:10. Times don't mean much in XC, but I've been pleased with my progression so far.

I bet some of you are wondering how I can be pleased because I have gotten it taken to me in two straight races by a bunch of college kids. Well, let me start of by saying, both of these races had some really good guys in it. Abilene Christian, which defeated Arkansas, the #1 NCAA team in the nation, was at both meets, and Arkansas was at the second. (I would have been Arkansas' #6th man in Stillwater). But most importantly, it shows my approach to running. My training is based upon getting in shape and improving every time out to peak for important races. The focus in the XC races was not to place high, but to run hard. At the same time, I didn't totally want to go to the well either time out because that should be saved for races I am really focusing on (don't get me wrong I ran hard). Either way, even if these races had been the Olympics, I wouldn't have done much better because I am just getting back into shape.

In college I wasn't as good as a runner as I am now, but I'm sure I would have busted my butt in both races and been really critical of my performances if things didn't go perfectly. Now, I can see how that is detrimental. Running well in September/October is nice, but it means nothings if you're not running well when it counts in November.

It's also funny how much I've progressed the last year in my running. When talking to the Oklahoma State coach about running his race, he mentioned to me Adam Goucher's course record and how many guys had broken 24 minutes on the course. I remember thinking,, "He must think I'm going to try and win this race." Meanwhile, I would have been pleased just to break 25 minutes. One part of me afterwards said, "Maybe I'm not just confident enough in cross-country. I've run 28:27 on the track, I should be killing these guys." But then my rational side said, 'You are just getting into shape. Let's see how things are going at the Ekiden and in the races in November that you are concerned about." I guess I'm trying to say that I'm still extremely confident in my abilities, but like everyone else, I have to get in shape.

That's one of the best things about running is that no matter how fast you've run in the past, running fast in the future does not come easily or with any guarantees. Even if you're the world record holder, if you don't put in the work, within a few months you'll be an also ran. I think this fact is one of the aspects that makes running so rewarding, but also frustrating at the same time.

Getting back into shape is never really enjoyable. Running fast in the past helps one get in shape in the future, but it's still difficult. Even though I've run under 28:30 for 10k, I realize that a 30:00 10k is still in absolute terms a very fast effort (you've still got to cover 4:50 a mile for the entire distance), and something I've only done three times in my life. We all need to keep a long term/seasonal approach to our training and not expect instant results. If you are not improving as the season progresses you are not training properly.

Having said all of this, I'm still hoping to do really well in Japan. I'm not in pr shape by any means or 29 minute shape, but things are progressing well every week (I did a 4.5 mile hard aerobic run yesterday and it was 90 degrees- I couldn't put it off for a few reasons, so I decided that I wasn't going to fight it and just run whatever pace came. I ended up running each mile faster than the one before, which makes me confident heading to Japan (5:11, 5:07, 5:05, 5:04, 69, 64)) All we can ask when we race is that we have a strong performance relative to the shape we are in. We can always strive for this no matter what shape we are in. I feel I can do this, but also am starting to get more confident about the absolute level of my fitness.

So Sayonara! I'm not sure what my plans are when I get back, but I am seriously looking for training partners. Drop me an email if you're interested. I'll be relocating so if you're in a nice location for running seriously email me. And if the website is a little slow the next couple weeks, my apologies, but I'll be in Japan and my brother is teaching for the first time this year, so he's got no time on his hands.

Weldon Johnson is a co-founder of LetsRun.com. Read his bio here.

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