Last week, a friend of mine gave me a several 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, a very uncommon set of results today. Perhaps more importantly, these clubs gave birth to life-long friendships and running partnerships.
I think these two things- speed and community- might be related.
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 reasons seem to be related to growing levels of obesity, which is of course related to lifestyle. And what about that sense community on display in the pages of MVR?
In one sense, it seems like 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 Twitter feed has more of the same. Apps like Strava are fantastic for connecting runners and helping to connect runners, but these tech tools can only go so far. I know most of 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 or partner workout. As many of you know, training with other people, especially people who are striving to get better, can do wonders for your own performance.
There is research to back up this idea. In 2008, a study asked students from the University of Virginia to estimate the steepness of a hill. Some of the study’s participants were asked to do the task alone, while others were asked to do it in the company of a friend. The study found that the participants who were accompanied by a friend rated the hill as less steep than those estimating alone. The researchers also found that the longer the participant knew the friend, the lower they rated the steepness of the hill, suggesting that the quality of the relationship was significant. Having a trusted partner along for the run can positively influence your perception of effort required to complete a workout.
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 in those conditions and; runs like this 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.
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. Find purposeful ways of cultivating a friendship with your running partner(s). 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.