Five Things I’ve Learned About Running That Change Everything #running

running-advice-bugMy stomach was bothering me today. I wanted to go out for my run, but I’ve been doing this running thing for a long time. I know it’s a mistake to head out the door with a stomach ache. You’re just asking for trouble. While I reflected on that, I came up with a few other things that I’ve learned in my time running that . . . change everything . . . if you take the time to learn them.

"You can't run with diarrhea." Photo: Joe English

“You can’t run with diarrhea.” Photo: Joe English

First, you can’t run when you have diarrhea. I know this seems like an odd thing to begin with, but it is true. You can’t run when you have diarrhea. Or another way to say this is that you can’t simultaneously keep diarrhea inside your body while running. With some real effort, you can train yourself to keep the diarrhea from explosively erupting if you really concentrate. But, honestly, it’s just easier to walk until you’ve found a more appropriate place to let it out. Perhaps more importantly, diarrhea is a stand-in for many things that keep us runners down. Like the proverbial thorn in the lion’s foot, there are just some things that keep us from doing what we intend to do. Sometimes you just have to stop and walk, let the shit out, and then continue on with your run. Shit may get in the way of our dreams in the short-term, but you will one day conquer it if you keep after it. It ain’t pretty, but that’s life.

Second, people that don’t run will never understand why we get so excited about running. I’m personally not sure why people get excited about reeling in a big fish. I don’t enjoy tracking down a tough software engineering problem. I may never get excited about birthday parties, large trucks or bowling alleys. We’re all different. We like different things and we get excited about different things. Running is our thing and they will never get it. It doesn’t matter if we’ve shaved 31 minutes off of our life-time PR or just found the perfect pair of shoes for running in mud. It also doesn’t matter if we’ve run 50 marathons in 50 states or done “a real bitch that nearly killed us.” They still won’t get it. And that’s fine. The important thing is that we are happy, fulfilled and joyful. All of us. It’s about acceptance and allowance. Let me run in peace and I will let you fish in peace. But please don’t try to force me to come fishing with you and I won’t make you run with me.

Third, it isn’t the distance that matters, it’s the effort that we put into it. People ask me all of the time why I would “bother” running 5K road races. People have also marveled at the fact that at times I have logged forty or fifty miles of running and walking in a day on marathon courses. You can pack a lot of effort into a short distance. It’s not the quantity of miles, it’s the quality of the effort. We decide where we focus and it’s our attention that makes the experience meaningful. There are times when we really need to focus. There are times when we have to muster all of our energy and put everything into it. At those times do it and don’t get distracted by anything else. There are times to slow down and relax too. It’s not about the things we do, it’s about how we do them.
Read more…


Why do we run anyway? #running #marathon

running-advice-bugI used to always ask runners why they run. I don’t ask that question anymore, because most people can’t really articulate the answer. Now I ask almost every runner I meet this question: “do you run because you love it or because you have a talent for it?” I find the answers quite profound.

Photo: Joe English, Futurist Media

Photo: Joe English, Futurist Media

What I’ve heard from runners is both as surprising and varied as the runners themselves. I’ve heard people say that they run because they it helps them sleep. I’ve heard people say that they run because it allows them to eat whatever they like or drink more beer. I’ve heard people say that they do it to be with their friends. Some have told me that running gives them purpose in their life or they are doing it as a remembrance for someone. I’ve heard people say that it gives them direction and goals in their lives. I’ve heard people say they do it for the guys (or the girls). I’ve even heard at least one person say that she runs because she actually likes portable toilets, but she may have been pulling my leg.

But rarely do I hear people say straight-out: “I do it because I’m good at it.” And this seems to be true even among very fast runners.

I was thinking about this the other morning before a race. I wasn’t feeling very well. I was kind of tired and cranky. My legs were bothering me and my bike wasn’t working correctly. It all felt kind of like a big hassle that day. I asked myself the question that I ask so many other people: “Joe, do you do this because you love it or because you’re good at it?” Of course, on the one hand, I’m good at it. I’ve been doing it all of my life and have enjoyed great success as a runner. But as I thought through my answer I found myself thinking that there must be more than that. I know that If all we have is talent, then it makes it very hard to overcome the hassles, the struggles, the pain that we’re going to inevitably feel as we run. If we don’t have something more driving us, it seems to me, that it becomes very hard to overcome these barriers.

It’s the joy part of the equation that keeps us coming back for more.

Even if we don’t love running every single day, we must at least like it a little. Without the “like”, without the joy, without those many other things that it brings to us then we probably would just find excuses not to do it.

My psychologist friend likes to use the analogy of a tree, imagining that you are the tree. She says that the roots of the tree are what hold it up and keep it sturdy when the wind blows against it. Those roots need to include certain things: friendship, pleasure, exercise, spirituality, and love. The strong the roots, the stronger the tree when it gets stormy. The first time we talked about this, I said “well, my running is my exercise.” She didn’t like that answer much. ‘Are you sure?’ she asked. ‘Is it your exercise, or your spirituality, or your source of friendships?” I think I ultimately concluded that it was a mixture of many of the roots of my tree. Running brings a lot to my life, including the ability to help others, a time to meditate, and a time to ponder things more deeply than I can when I’m bombarded by everything going on in my life. Run strengthens me physically, but it also strengthens me in many other ways.

So even on a bad day, when running may feel like a hassle, there’s more to it than that. It’s more than just talent and more than just exercise. It’s also more than just joy. Running may be one of the very roots that holds our tree up when the wind starts blowing hard. And I suppose for that, I can say that I love it.

Coach Joe English @coachjoeenglish, Portland, Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News @runningadvice
(c) 2015


Boston Marathon: Five Things I Learned at the Boston Marathon

running-advice-bugBoy you learn a lot in every marathon. I’ve been running marathons for say 25 years and I’m never surprised that each race teaches me something new. The 2014 Boston Marathon was like no other, with huge crowds and an outpouring of community spirit. This one was a new experience for me as I as woefully under-trainer. I had pretty much planned to walk the Newton Hills, I just hadn’t also planned to walk the three miles before and after them.

Here are five things that I can pass along to all of you from my run-walk-shuffle-jog from Hopkington to Boston — most of which won’t be useful to you, but I hope you enjoy them anyway.

Boston Marathon Elevation Profile

Boston Marathon Elevation Profile

1) Boston’s Really Tough — You rarely hear people talk about their times in Boston. You do hear people talk about “Heartbreak Hill”, that mythical monster of a climb that looms at mile 21. But really it’s not any one hill that makes this course a killer. It’s a combination of lots of downhill and lots and lots of short ups and downs throughout the course that trashes your legs. If you want to see just what makes it tough, look at the hill profile that I’ve attached here. Note the overall downhill trend for more than the first half of the course, but all of those little jagged ups in there as well. Key learning: “Boston is tough. Boston is never boring.”

2) Find a Walking Buddy — I don’t usually walk in marathons, but I kind of knew that my legs were not going to last. Here’s a tip: when you are walking along the side of a race with people passing you, the crowd kinda “stares” at you. Sometimes they clap, but often they sort of look away awkwardly as if to say, “It’s ok little buddy,” with a tap on your head. I quickly learned that if you walk with someone else, then it doesn’t feel so weird. I will add here that if you pick someone that looks even worse than you, then you sort of look like you are ‘escorting’ them and that feels a little better somehow (although you will still be in whatever pain that ails you).

3) Wear a “USA” T-shirt — If you want to get people to really yell for you, then just wear something that says “USA” on it. The chants of “USA, USA, USA” were constant along the course as I made my way along. Of course, if you don’t want this attention then you may want to avoid wearing an American Flag or the letters “USA”. While I was in the midst of walking, some of the chants took on a bit more of a consoling tone like, “It’s OK USA, we’re proud of you anyway.” I found that if people said that and I started to jog a little bit, then they went wild.

4) Water Sounds Different in Boston — The people in the aid station will yell this word that you may not recognize. It’s sounds like this: “Waaaaaah-tah”. I figured out about 6 miles through the race they were saying “water”. Just go with it.

5) Boston is About the People — The fans in Boston are amazing. They chant. They scream. They yell funny things at you. The have signs that say things like, “If a marathon were easy, they’d call it your mother” and “Go Random Stranger.” They offer you beer, doughnuts and cigarettes. The Wellesley Girls are so loud that they will make your head spin. Leave your headphones at home.

The people of Boston put on one hell of a marathon. Everyone should run this one once, but keep in mind that it is a tough one! Have fun out there.

Coach Joe English


Boston Marathon: Running To Show it Matters

running-advice-bugIf you had asked me two weeks ago why I was running the 2014 Boston Marathon, I probably would have stuttered through an answer that included a lot of ‘ummms’ and ‘hmmms’. A couple of days ago it hit me like a run-away freight-train: I’m running — we’re all running — because it matters that we are there.

I admit it openly: I’m horribly out of shape at the moment, having been broad-sided by four months of jet lag and international travel that disrupted my training. I’m not in shape to race, but like many I had signed up to run this year’s Boston Marathon because it felt important to do so. I have run Boston before and I didn’t particularly need to go back. I was urged on to qualify and register by some higher duty.

I was shocked and outraged that terrorists had detonated bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. We runners were even more hurt than most communities, because it touched so close to home. (Although the City of Boston was hurt immeasurably more and we should never forget that.) Running events are peaceful, non-political, and above-all supposed to be fun both for competitors and spectators.

It was a substantial weight that settled on my shoulders in the days after Boston 2013 that many people who had nothing to do with sport — people who had just come out to cheer and support the runners — had become the targets of terrorists. People had died simply for trying to wish our community well. I hurt for them. I still hurt for them when I think about it.

Over the course of the last year, I have thanked many, many spectators along race routes. I have always thanked course volunteers and police, but this year I added “thanks for being here” to the many people lining the roads where I raced. It became even more important for me to acknowledge their support, because they represented that risk that I now sensed in a post-Boston world. Perhaps they didn’t make the connection, but I did.

The weight that I felt also included a sense of mourning for those who lost family while cheering them on. I tried to picture myself learning of the death of a loved-one after finishing a race who had been their watching me. It made my racing feel horribly small. I couldn’t stand the thought that someone would trade-off their life to support me in my hobby, even if they hadn’t done it knowingly.

As the months passed, we felt some healing of these wounds. It was in this time that I think I forgot what Boston 2014 should be all about. I fell into my pattern of thinking about my own performance and my own goals. As a competitor that’s what I’m trained to do. But the big picture emerged like the sunrise last week. This one is about saying thank you. It’s about telling the world that we understand the risk that they take on to cheer us on. Boston 2014 is about running to show that it matters.

When I toe the starting line on Monday I will have left my watch at home. My mission will be simple: show up, thank as many people as possible and show the world that we see them there. I’m not going to give another thought to my own time or performance, because that doesn’t matter this year. Boston 2014 is our way of together acknowledging that we understand what happened and that see that what we do is not made smaller by the acts of terrorists. This one is about family, community and world. This one is for the people that didn’t come home, or were injured, after simply cheering us on.

And with that I will say my first thank you. THANK YOU.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News


Commentary — Ironman Now Lives in the Realm of the Possible

running-advice-bugI remember when the Marathon was something that seamed somewhat daunting and unattainable. People were running them of course, but they held the distance in a sort of reverence. It was something that was still a lofty goal. You didn’t take the Marathon distance lightly. It was, in fact, common when I first started coaching to have to sort through the length of time between Marathons and measure that calculation in months. That was back when the Marathon lived outside of the Realm of the Possible.

IRONMANnow livesin the REALMof the POSSIBLESomewhere, I’m going to say between five and ten years ago, the Marathon just suddenly moved into the Realm of the Possible. The conversation became less about how difficult the Marathon was and rather focused on how fast, how quickly could one qualify for Boston (in their first, second, third Marathon maybe?), how many could be run in one year, how to run one in all fifty states, and so on. I now routinely talk to people that are running multiple marathons on back-to-back days. I talked to several people this Fourth of July that were doing four marathons over that holiday weekend. A friend of mine this week, at a play date with our kids, casually responded to a “what are you doing tomorrow?” with a “I’ve got a Marathon” as if it were a coffee date.

While the Marathon may still be daunting for many, especially first timers, it has simply moved into the Realm of the Possible. It is something that people can do. This I realized some time ago. But the Ironman Triathlon (140.6 miles combined distances), in my mind, lay quite secure in its place in the Kingdom of Painfully Difficult. It lay far beyond the secure borders of the Realm of the Possible. There was a measure sort of awe in the faces of those that asked if I had “ever done an Ironman?” It was a shock for me when, this month, I had to re-look at my map and move the Ironman into the Realm of the Possible. There it now lies.

The signs were there for awhile. I read a note that a certain Ironman was now considered a “bucket list” race, one that “every triathlete should put on their list.” I heard a spin instructor tell our class that he was doing his fifth Ironman OF THE YEAR that weekend. An e-mailer yesterday casually told me that he “really wanted to break nine hours in the Ironman” this year, formerly something only the Pros could do. People are doing them old and young. People do six or more a year. People are collecting the set, so to speak, of whatever geographic list of Ironmans they are working on.
Read more…


Commentary — Shaping our Thoughts, Reflecting on a Tragedy

running-advice-bugI awoke early Saturday morning. There was a strange noise outside my Tuscon hotel room window. It was a sound that I had never heard before. I went over to the sliding glass door and pulled the curtain back. Standing outside was a family of Javelina — wild pigs. There were three large ones and two tiny piglets. The piglets were sitting with their backs against the glass of the door. The other three pigs wandered off out of view but the little pigs just sat there touching themselves against the glass.

National_Champion_400I watched them for a moment and started to go get my camera. Then one of the large pigs came back. Mom I’m guessing. She scratched her feet in the dirt and nudged at the piglets but they didn’t move. She made some angry noises, but they still stayed put. Then one of the piglets turned her heard and looked in through the glass. It was almost as if she was looking right at me. She held her gaze through the glass for a moment and then both piglets got up and went off into the underbrush alone. Mother pig went off in the other direction after the other pigs.

I’ve spent much of this year writing on my blog here about our mental game. It’s such an important topic to understand both how we control our thinking and how we react to external events. I noted earlier this year that I had gone into one race “angry”, taking out my aggression in a fiery tirade against the field that left them in my dust. I was untouchable that day. I’ve also had days this year when I felt complacent for one reason or another and in those times it has been hard to step on the gas when needed. As I often say, our thoughts frame our feelings. When we receive bad news we may feel angry. When we are given compliments we may feel happier about our selves. This often happens unconsciously, but the trained mind can be channeled to react and feel very specifically.

Think about this in the context of our racing for a moment. Before races I often tell my participants to “turn their anxiety into excitement,” which is another way of saying that they need to take a negative emotion and turn it into a positive one. I spent a lot of time thinking about all of this going into Duathlon Nationals in Tucscon this past weekend. I knew that I had the potential to win a national title, but honestly, I was not emotionally ready to race. I was tired from the long long season. I wanted to be done and on to recovery. But it had also been on my mind that I would have really liked to have captured that “anger” that I felt earlier in the season. How could I turn my mind back into that animal state that would let me crush this one?

This had been on my mind for a couple of weeks and then tragedy hit us here in Portland. My friend Coach Jane Samuels was hit by the horrible, heartbreaking, painful loss of her fiance’s daughter and step sister. The two little girls were killed by a car while playing outside (Read many stories about the accident on Oregon Live). The collective hearts of Portland’s triathlon community literally sunk through the floor. For my own part, I was brought to tears repeatedly throughout the week. Even now, I tear up thinking about it. As a father of a six year-old, I sympathize in the most encompassing form of that word. I cannot imagine the pain that this family is enduring right now.
Read more…


Reaction — Proud and Feeling Lucky to be in the Game

running-advice-bugI know that many people wonder if I make up the runners that I talk about in my posts. I promise they are real people. Today my friend Cat, who was mentioned in last week’s post about making the most of what you did in your training, adds her reaction to the post. Cat is a great woman and I think her perspective comes through loud and clear: she’s happy to be in the game!

I’m writing to confess that I am the ill-prepared marathoner from Coach Joe’s recent blog post. He’s right. I should be proud, as should anyone who completes a marathon or any significant goal. My response was tentative not just because I could have trained more (ahem, trained at all) or that I could have pushed myself for a better time, but because I know I got lucky.

You see, I know better. This was my third time showing up at the starting line fit (ish) but otherwise ill-prepared. Even with proper training, finishing in good health is not always possible for everyone and it’s not something I intend to take for granted.

Out there on marathon day, one of the many signs I enjoyed read simply, “Someday you won’t be able to do this. Today is not that day!” It made me think about all the people who would have liked to be able to run that day but couldn’t for one reason or another. I thought about people who worked really hard to be there — people like my friend Chris who lost nearly half his body weight in that last two years and transformed himself into a marathoner and a healthy, active dad. I thought about people who used to run but can’t anymore as the years have taken their toll on them. And at the end of it all, I felt incredible gratitude to reside in a body that is currently able to do so many things.

Everyone who runs has a story and the finish line can mean many different things. For me, this finish line served as an indicator that I’m on track for other goals. Pacing is everything and I’ve got a killer 5hr shuffle to call upon! In a nutshell, my current “fitness” goal is simply to be ready for fun and adventure, now and for as long as possible. I want to push myself to make the most of my health while I have it while staying injury free. I want gas in the tank for my 80’s and beyond.

This marathon also reminded me of how lucky I am not only to have a healthy body, but to have the time and resources to dedicate to recreation. And when injury or tragedy could take us out of the race at any moment, it’s a privilege just to run.
Read more…


Commentary — You’re Prepared, I Promise (or ‘My First Marathon’)

running-advice-bugI was talking to a group of runners the other night before their first marathon at the Rock N Roll San Diego Marathon. I was repeating my mantra to them — “Don’t freak out” — and telling them not to worry. “You’re prepared, I promise” I told them. One of them came to me afterward and asked me, “how can you promise that we are prepared Coach?” I answered her by telling her the story of my first marathon many years ago. In the age of the Internet, great web-resources, astonishingly detailed race web-sites and fleets of personal coaches, think about this next time you wonder whether you are prepared for your next race.

Let me take you back to 1989. I was the tender age of 18. I found myself at the time running with the University of Puget Sound, where I was spending my Freshmen year in college. I was a lean (read: scrawny) teenage (read: stupid) runner (read: fast) with tons and tons of racing experience (read: almost none in reality). I could talk a good talk with runners though. One day, precisely seven days before the Portland Marathon, someone asked me if I wanted to run the marathon the next weekend. “Sure!” I exclaimed. “That sounds great.”

I had no idea at that moment what a marathon would entail. In fact, I didn’t know how long a marathon was. In those days, there was no such thing as a half-marathon. I had raced plenty of 5K and 10K races. I was well prepared for those distances, which is to say I had a no idea about anything longer than that. I didn’t even want to ask anyone how long the marathon was, because, well, I didn’t want to look stupid.

In those days, we didn’t have the Internet, so I went to the library. I looked up the word “marathon” in the dictionary. Here was the definition: “an endurance contest. . . Something (as an event, activity, or session) characterized by great length or concentrated effort.” Thanks for nothing Noah Webster. I went to an encyclopedia and in it I found out that someone in ancient Greece had once run from a place called Marathon to Athens and had dropped dead at the end. Great.

I proceeded to make my preparations for the event. I filled out the entry form, which didn’t ask for my e-mail or cell phone number, because we didn’t have those things at the time. The only information I had to give was my mailing address, which I presumed was so the race organizer could mail home the bodies of those that dropped dead at the finish.
Read more…


Mental Games — Balancing ‘Should’ Versus ‘Want’

running-advice-bugI’ve told the story countless times about how I ended up a runner. My mom had put me in sport after sport, so the story goes, and my soccer coach pulled her aside. “Ms. English,” he said, “your son is a terrible soccer player, but outruns everyone on the field. Perhaps he is a runner.”

About the time I started running (Circa 1972)

About the time I started running (Circa 1972)

I always tell this story to get the chuckle that invariably comes when the coach says that I was a terrible player. This is likely true. I’m one of the least coordinated people that I know. In fact, I often refer to myself as a “big dumb engine” — turn me on and I just go. But there is another side to that story that I’ve never really talked about. Another response my mom could have had was, “well, is he having fun?”

It occurs to me that we are often so focused on being “good” at things like sports that we forget that we can do them just for the sake of having fun. At the young age of six years old, should it have mattered that I was terrible at playing soccer? Should it have mattered that I might excel at running? What if I loved the game of soccer and hated running? Should we always be in search of the things in which we are most competitive?

I’ve noticed a bit of language that I key in to related to this these days. When I’m talking to runners and triathletes, they often use the word “should” — as in “should I run another marathon?”, “should I try to qualify for Boston?” “should I do another Ironman?” What underlies these questions is a sort of obligation. ‘Should’ implies there is a some reason or duty there. ‘Should’ could be interchanged with “must” pretty easily.
Read more…


Mental Games — Feeling Average While Doing the Impossible

running-advice-bugTell almost anyone that you’re doing an Ironman Triathlon and watch the expression on their face. They almost can’t believe it. Actually they just can’t understand it. “How far is the bike?” they ask and even when you tell them they have no comprehension how far 180KM (112 miles) really is. Sometimes I tell them by relating it to a distance they would understand — “It’s from here out to the beach and back.” They still don’t get it. The physical task is, simply put, impossible for them to understand.

Coach Joe before Ironman Australia 2013

Coach Joe before Ironman Australia 2013

But then you go out and do your Ironman or your marathon and you’re somehow feeling. . . “average.” You look around at 2,000 people crashing into the water, pedaling along the highway and running through the night and you start to think maybe this ain’t such a big deal. It’s not like you won or even came close. In fact, the winners were finishing the race before you probably got off the bike. You hear others talking about the race: this is my 50th, they say, or their fastest or their third this year. They are 65 years old and just finished their first one. It’s not only very possible, but almost common place.

Last weekend at Ironman Australia I had this very feeling. Although I was doing what most consider impossible, I was feeling quite average. How can this be?

I talked with my favorite psychologist this weekend and she helped me understand this a bit. First, both our own comprehension of what we do and that of the people viewing it is shaped by our own experience. What this means is that the person hearing about your tale of physical world domination can’t comprehend the task, because they have no experience with which to understand it. And our experience leads us to form an opinion based on all that we’ve done. In other words, we have a basis to compare against while others don’t.

Second, we’re competitive creatures. That’s why we participate in these crazy marathons and Ironman triathlons to begin with. Our competitive drive shape our impression of how we feel about our endeavors. The self-talk of the athlete quickly goes from “I am just trying to finish” to “I could have gone faster if only I had. . .” This inner self-talk, which ultimately is a source of our desire to improve, takes us from thinking that we’re doing the impossible to thinking that we could do it better the next time.
Read more…