Portrait of a Runner

May 13, 2014

It all starts with the feet. The birth-place of injuries. I’m a life-long heel striker, and I’ve paid the price for it. When I started running in the seventies, proper running form didn’t exist. Well, this isn’t true, but my cross-country coach never once mentioned form. He talked about strategy. “Crest the hill” was his favorite saying. But form? Nope. He never mentioned nutrition either, except one time after a Friday practice, he said “Don’t drink too much beer tonight, kids, we have a meet in the morning.” This was the seventies, things were different.

My long, loping stride, launch from the toe, land on the heel was common, fine with my coach. And the result was nasty bouts with shin-splints and twenty years of knee bursitis. I can be stubborn. I always think I know what’s best–for me, for others. I could never be convinced that my running form was related to my injuries. Running partners would complain about my foot-slapping gate. Running on a treadmill was an embarrassing racket.

A recent reading of Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” changed all of this. His early chapters talking about running form and injuries caught me off guard. It made me think of myself. And his descriptions of trail running reminded me that wooded trails were my favorite place to run.

Eighteen months ago, I set out to work on my foot strike, my stride. Move to a mid/front sole landing, with a tight, gliding stride. And I think I’ve finally got it. I have the evidence. A few weeks ago, I ran a five mile road race. My first in two years. Since coming off an injury (knee bursitis, again), and rebooting my stride, I’ve stuck to the trails, even in races. Nothing on the road for 24 months. But this race is special to me. I was its first race director, and I had the privilege of laying out the course. A simple out and back with nothing but hills. It’s not a very popular race, too hard for the 5K crowd, not long enough for the half-marathoners. 8Ks and 10Ks seem to be out of favor these days. At least in my region.

At the home stretch of the race a photographer was shooting the runners as we finished. He got a couple of good ones of me. One head on, and one from the side. With these, I’m able to evaluate my stride, my posture. And because it is the end of a race, when I’m tired, the data is more pertinent than when I set out, when proper form is foremost in my thoughts. Looking at the photos of my finish, I’m elated but surprised to see excellent form. Upright posture, a perfect foot strike. Right on the ball of my foot.


This success has been hard won. Switching strides thirty-five years into my running career took effort, and pain. Relearning what I knew. Building new muscles. Back to basics, back to the start. Every run felt like my first. My calves hurt all the time. My foam-roller was my most important running equipment.

My pace took a two minute hit while I learned my new stride. Everything I ran was at a ten-minute pace. Not my normal eight. Short, long, it didn’t matter. All runs came in with ten-minute splits. And my pace has been slowly creeping back down ever since. My overall time for the five mile race was about thirty seconds off the time I posted four years ago. This race was 8:10 per mile, so I’m going to call myself done. I’m as fast a runner as I used to be, pre-switch, and now I have proper form.

Two years ago, I ran the same race and did fairly well. I can’t compare times because the volunteer who set up the turn-around point was short by a quarter of a mile. Still, it was one of my faster race-paces since I left my thirties, down in the sevens. The same photographer was taking pictures at the finish and he got a clean one of me. I looked like hell. In pain, terrible form, emaciated, old. Fast, but sickly.

The guy who finished the race immediately after me was Brad, my co-worker’s boyfriend. We were in the same age group, and he trash-talked me a bit before the race. There is a good photo of him finishing the race as well. And the contrast between his photo and mine is sickening. He is upright, buff, confident. Pumped up, almost cartoonish – like Captain America. He looked great. It doesn’t matter that I beat him. He looked better losing. Much better. I was so shocked by the difference in the photos that I started lifting weights again.

I work at a community center with an awesome fitness center. Huge floor, comprehensive selection of weight machines and free weights. But I never used them. I haven’t lifted weights in decades. My exercise routine was spinning and yoga. I was disdainful of people who pumped weights. I didn’t see the point. I was strong, flexible and fit. Most people at a fitness center are trying to lose weight. I couldn’t have been any more lean. I felt that I was everything that everyone else was trying to achieve.

Fitness-wise, this has been a ground-breaking two years for me. My entire adult life, I’ve exercised, a lot. But I’ve never really had an exercise program, never had a clear idea of what I was trying to achieve, (other than fitness). Running, mountain biking, soccer, weight-lifting, swimming, yoga, spinning. I’ve been fairly fit, but without a plan. In and out of fads and focus areas. Essentially working however I wanted, whatever felt right. Without thought to an overall fitness goal. Imbalanced muscles–especially my quads–contributed to countless injuries.

After comparing myself to Brad, I wanted some muscle mass. I wanted to look fit, not just thin. And I’m a much healthier person for it. I began to put as much mental effort into my fitness program as the physical. I began researching workouts, proper form, muscle balance. I incorporated plyometric drills and compound lifts a la Crossfit. Stole bear-crawls and power-ups from Parkour. I inserted intensity intervals into my spinning class. And I added the body-weight exercises that were popular in the sixties. Gone is iron-pumping I used twenty years ago. My exercises now are much more in line with real-world activities.

2 yearsThe results have been remarkable. Not only do I look more fit, I am more fit. Better muscle balance, fewer exercise injuries, faster recovery. A stronger runner, more of an athlete. Body awareness, tighter, sturdier, stable. This all helps my trail running, and it helps me age. Now in my fifties, I feel that my fitness is still improving, or once again improving after a long break. It gives me hope that in ten or twenty years, I’ll still be running trails, working out, instructing spin classes. My current retirement-career goal is to be a personal trainer to the over-fifty crowd. Not for people just wanting to tone up or lose some weight. Folks who are looking for true fitness. Setting new goals, stretching to achieve them. But for now, I’m working on myself.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This originally appeared on my former blog Undercrust. I’m moving over some of my favorite content because Google is planning to shut down it’s old Google+ network, the engine for that blog. A couple of interesting things here:

In the side by side photos immediately above, it’s easy to see how impacted my left clavicle and shoulder are from a 1995 bicycle accident. I was successfully put back together, but I lost a few inches off the width of my shoulder.

Second: I now have absolutely zero interest in becoming a personal trainer, and I dropped being a spin instructor eighteen months ago. Scary how quickly those interests changed.

Third: Still an avid trail runner, but chronic elbow tendinitis (for three years) has put a serious crimp in the rest of my exercise program.

Last: Read BAD ASS: My Quest to become a Back Woods Trail Runner (and other obsessive goals) to learn more about my journey as an aging runner. It’s free to download.

12 thoughts on “Portrait of a Runner

  1. This is interesting! I love how the side-to-side shows how you’ve nailed the perfect stride or whatchamacallit. Do you think it’s harder to do when you run slowly? My best friend (a keen runner) advised that a good way to find the perfect way is to run fast as you then naturally end up leaning forward and just landing on the front of your foot, then slow down and keep that posture and step. However because my pace is so slow it’s almost impossible (roughly 7 mins/k…. SLOOOOOW). Any advice? On the one hand I do like the idea of getting faster, on the other I just freaking LOVE a slow, enjoyable jog that doesn’t leave me gasping.. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that speed is irrelevant. I actually needed to slow down a lot to make the switch. An I’ve organized tons of races, 7 minutes per km is a pretty standard speed for a large portion of the runners. You should read Born to Run. It’s a great story wrapped around small bits of technical information.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve had the worst time with form and have had all the foot injuries in the book because of it. I have tried to change, but get lazy and fall back to old habits. That is interesting about building muscle as well – I JUST joined a gym a couple of weeks ago similar to Declan’s boot camp. I told them I just wanted to tone and build muscle and wasn’t concerned if it would make me run faster. They all shrugged and said it probably would whether I cared about it or not. Now I am pretty motivated!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have a totally opposite problem: I run so much forefoot that I land almost on my toes! My husband says I run like a dancer (I used to be a dancer and gymnast so it makes sense). It’s very useful on rocky trails and it has yet to cause injuries, so I’m not sure it’s a problem, really… I just need really flexible shoes!

    I like the photo of you sideways! You achieved the perfect running form!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow! I didn’t realize until the end the article was from several years ago. I did wonder about your trail-running comment because you just told me you did very little trail running this winter. I was ready to hire you to be my coach! 🙂 Actually, I am a little bit like you – I am stubborn and think I know what is best for me.

    My running changed 12 – 15 years ago after I read “Chi Running”. Same concept. Focus on form.


  5. I read Born To Run, as well, even though I really have no interest in running but did want to know about proper stride. I have found it is helpful even in daily life and while hiking as I pay more attention to how my feet land when placing my foot uphill and down hill and have noticed a huge different in how my knees feel because of it (for the better). I wish more people would read that book, especially as we get older and realize that what had been portrayed as proper form (who hasn’t seen the image of a runner heel striking glorified?) really isn’t. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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