Air Force Marathon with ChiRunning

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Running the 11th annual Air Force marathon was one of the most enjoyable competitions I’ve had. Held mostly on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, with a short venture into the bustling downtown of Fairborn, the marathon was anything but dull. And the course delivered more variety and shade than I expected.

Larry and I arrived in the dark shortly after the gates opened at 5A.M., assuring us of a coveted parking spot close to the pedestrian gates. With Larry’s non-stop dialogue (or more accurately monologue) the minutes passed quickly. We stretched; used my stick for massage; and ate breakfast, mostly in the dark, illuminated only by the light in the trunk of my car. I even showed Larry some of the ChiRunning tips I learned, but he didn’t use them in the marathon. I did.

Coming off fast long training runs of 11 miles (Larry isn’t one to do the 20-mile preparation thing), he told me that he wanted to test his body and decided to go forward into the 3:30 pace group while I decided to align my injury-prone frame with the 4:00 folks, silently hoping to break that elusive four-hour barrier that I last cracked in March of ’09. So I let Larry go ahead and hoped I wouldn’t pass him at mile 23.

And, even though I had not used the ChiRunning technique, I thought I would experiment (something older people like to do once in a while). I met Danny Dreyer, author of Chi-Running, at the marathon’s expo on Thursday and asked him to sign his book, which I read a few years ago. At that time I didn’t really get a lot out of it and thought that running coaches were somewhat of a redundant joke. C’mon, how difficult is it to put one foot in front of another and head down the path? Do we need breathing coaches, too, I wondered?  But, as the years went by and several injuries later … and hopefully a bit wiser, I decided to attend his seminar at the expo and pay attention.

Danny’s talk was preceded by a presentation by a family practice MD, an Air Force Reserve officer, who actually won this marathon in ’06. His emphasis was on natural running, minimalistic shoes, and mid-foot striking, which made sense to me, although I didn’t know how to do it. Dr. Cucuzzella would run a fine marathon here, finishing fifth overall in 2:42. Impressive for a part-timer, a true amateur. I asked him a question about plantar fasciitis, the condition that plagued me for the past two years and complete death for a lot of runners. His response was typical of the vast majority of MDs – very incomplete. But Danny, standing nearby, heard my question and replied that walking, wearing only socks, on a gravel driveway, for five minutes a day would help. He might be right. I felt glad to be healed.

Danny then delivered his sermon. An entertaining and a dynamic speaker, he involved the entire audience by conducting a hands-on demonstration of  his technique. After about 45 minutes of instruction, he asked for questions and I inquired about how to land with a mid-foot strike. He immediately demonstrated and it finally clicked in my dense brain. It was the best seminar on running I had ever heard – by far. And that includes a few that I attended at the Boston Marathon.

So I rationalized that I had nothing to lose by trying his method … except perhaps yet another injury, which would be nothing new. Sometimes one must take a risk. So as we began at 7:15, after listening to about 15 minutes of introductions of dignitaries and watching a huge bomber fly over our heads (reminded me of the RAF Tornadoes at Lossiemouth in Scotland), I watched the footstrikes of many runners. Actually I became fixated on this for most of the race. And gradually I found my form adapting to the Dreyer method rather easily as I kept up effortlessly with the 4:00 group. I suppose it helped that the pacer was a lovely young female with a PR of 2:37.  She was surrounded by about 30 men and women, making me content to hang in the back of the pack and take in the atmosphere of the Air Force Base. I expected a dreary, bleak, shade-less no-man’s land, but was pleasantly surprised by several pockets of screaming fans, pumped up military, the bomber flying overhead, and significant stretches of shade from buildings and trees.

Our pace leader kept perfect time, the miles rolling off at nearly 9:00 on the nose, which was great since I fell behind due to a very functional bladder that required three or four bathroom breaks, for one of which I actually entered a porta-potty. Male advantage and, yes, there were a few, strategically (at least from my standpoint)  positioned trees on the course. After answering those calls to nature, I was able to see the 4:00 sign, carried nobly by this young lassie, and catch up to the pace group. Thanks to her, I finished the half comfortably in 1:59.

All the while, as I practiced ChiRunning, I did not notice any muscle soreness, the miles ticking away effortlessly. I wondered if I would again, as usual, slow down decrepitly in the last five miles. Time would tell. But after mile 17, I could not see any mile markers to track my pace and had to trust the pace leader for accuracy. In fact, the next mile marker I saw was number 22. At this point I felt fine, relaxed and enjoying the sights, sounds of the occasional cheering crowd, and running very, very easily, a feeling that I normally don’t have at mile 22.

So after my final potty break, I figured I’d better catch up to our steady leader, which I did without much stress, and overheard her saying that we were 45 seconds behind pace time. When I started running alongside her, she told me that she said that we were actually 45 second ahead of schedule. Whew! By now I knew that, along with my lightweight NB 903s (fortified by Stacy’s marvelous orthotics), ChiRunning was going to help me break four hours. I resolved to break away from the pack at mile 25, which I did, increasing my cadence while sticking to a mid-foot strike, and calmly and methodically weaving in and out of the slower runners and walkers who formed a veritable obstacle course. I had so much gas left in the tank over the last half mile that I didn’t know what to do. Should I sprint or just finish quickly? Fortunately reason took over and I sped happily across the finish line in 3:59 and waited a minute or so to give a hug to my pace leader, a brave young lady. I also wanted to shout Danny Dreyer’s name loudly.

At this point, besides being satisfied with my time, I was bewildered that my muscles weren’t sore. Not at all. Could I have run faster? Probably yes. Another thing that amazed me was that my muscles responded in this hot weather (about 75 degrees when I finished).  Then, after going through the food tent twice and returning once to the finish line in an effort to find Larry, I discovered him slumped in a heap near the exit, happy that he did 3:41 but feeling very sore and exhausted. I wonder how he would have felt if he had used ChiRunning.  Anyway, it worked well for me and Danny, you now have another disciple for your running method. Next stop: Bar Harbor!

Robert F. K., DDS
Retired, but still alive