Last week, a friend of mine gave me a bunch of copies of an old local magazine called Mohawk Valley Runner which I’ll call “MVR” for the rest of the piece. The issues she gave me were from 1985-1986. I’m not sure how long MVR was in publication, but it’s certainly no longer around.
MVR, published monthly in glorious black and white, sought to capture all that was happening in the Mohawk Valley running community. There were race applications, race results, runner profiles, club information, health tips; it was very comprehensive. I’ve been having a lot of fun looking through this cool piece of local running history. In an age before Strava and social media, this must have been a rather valuable resource for staying connected to other runners around here. Some of the runners in the magazine are familiar; they’re still out running, even in their 70s.
While flipping through the pages, I was struck by how many clubs there used to be and how often people raced and trained together. Weekly club group runs seemed very common, and the clubs, even in small towns, had lots of members. And many of those runners were FAST. A glance at 10k results shows a lot of sub 40:00 finishers.
I think these two things- speed and community- might be related. Bear with me as I try to get out some thoughts that I’m still exploring.
There could be lots of reasons why runners now are slower, and not just in the Mohawk Valley. Even on a national level, average finish times for traditional distance races are increasing, which seems surprising since we have so much technology and data to help us improve. I won’t go through all of the causes of the increase here, but the immediate reason, no surprise, is growing levels of obesity, which is of course related to lifestyle. Even runners are fairly sedentary compared to our predecessors from even the 80s. The modern lifestyle also includes an increasingly isolated and atomized existence, effecting all sorts of communities in the US. It is so pervasive that it must be impacting the running community as well.
In one sense, it seems like we runners are connected more than ever before. I have 108 followers on Strava; I’m following 102, some of whom are in foreign countries. Every day my feed is full of people doing long runs, speed work, hill climbs, and races. My Facebook feed is full of the same. Apps like Strava are fantastic for connecting runners and helping to build a community, but these tech tools can only go so far. I know all these runners, but unlike the clubs of the 80s, I almost never run with them unless I’m at a race. Strava was never meant to take the place of the weekly club run. As most of you know, training with other people, especially people who are striving to get better, can do wonders for your own performance.
By coincidence, I had a chance to reflect on this just one day after I received the copies of MVR. On a Tuesday night, I accepted an invitation to run with two great area runners. Since it was a weeknight, I assumed we might just do 8-10 miles in town and call it a day. Instead, we climbed the massive hills going north out of Little Falls and did just under 20 miles, with over 2,000 feet of gain, in a windswept course that left us with frozen beards and locked jaws. Our 8:52 pace wasn’t too shabby, considering the conditions.
Two things about this run are absolutely true: None of us on our own would have done this amount of work on a Tuesday night and; runs like this definitely make us stronger and faster.
Our ringleader that night, the famous John Geesler, was actually featured a few times in those old MVR magazines. He doesn’t use Strava…or even a watch. He’s old school, and he’s still a threat at 60 years old. He still seeks out people to run with and anyone who trains with him gets better.
Maybe the growth of virtual running communities has caused us to lose sight of a basic time-tested truth about running: training partners (the right ones) makes you better. You’re more likely to push through a tough workout and hit the streets in the worst weather. In the absence of social media, runners decades ago had to do group runs to stay connected. Perhaps some of them did it purely for the social aspect, but even these people no doubt improved. As the book of Proverbs says, “Iron sharpens iron.”
This is not an appeal to get rid of things like Strava. The data and networking on these sites can be very helpful and we can learn a lot from seeing the results of so many different workouts, but it’s not enough on its own. Try to find a running partner(s) and join a club. Ideally, find someone to run with who is maybe just a little faster than you. You don’t have to run together every day, but set a consistent schedule and stick to it. Get out there rain or shine. It can also help fight the increasing isolation of modern life.
If you’re interested, you can join our local club, Rock City Runners. You can find us….on Strava.