Larry Allen on Running File 3 - My coach said when passing someone, pick up the pace, go by with certainty and show no sign of exertion

Full circle. I am becoming Fred Dingley. He was my first cross country coach at Lee Academy way back in 1969.   One late summer day a couple of years ago I headed for my usual early evening run at a favorite trail in Connecticut . A welcome hint of fall was in the air. Dry, refreshing Canadian high pressure, breezes and gentle fall-like light had crept in for the first time in months, replacing the laser-bright sun and stifling humidity of a hot summer. The trail I often run extends along the Pequonnock River Valley and the beautiful weather had it abuzz with happy runners, cyclists and walkers, a full house in the parking lot.   At the top of the short hill leading from the lot to the trailhead; 15 young men from a local high-school cross country team gathered, bare-chested, stretching against a rail fence. The 14 year-old newbie kids tried not to be conspicuous in their very presence but also were clearly checking out their bigger, stronger and more confident 17-18 year-teammates. The older ones innocently full of themselves, utterly oblivious to the younger kids.   They all started running just before I shuffled up onto the trail. Within the first half mile I could already see the smaller, slower runners beginning to fall off the pace. I caught the first kid soon after.   For a minute I was back in the early fall of 1969. My first coach, yes Fred Dingley, was the headmaster of the school. In his 60s, he ran with the team some days. I was 14, 4’9” and weighed maybe 90lbs. I lacked fitness, confidence or any knowledge whatsoever. Mr. Dingley caught me a few times in my first few runs that September and always had a word of encouragement as he passed. He made me feel like if he could run 2-3 miles at his age I damn well could, even when I seriously doubted it two steps prior to him passing and three steps after he went by.   Fred Dingley's teams were a perennial power in Maine. State Champions my first 2 years. My next coach, Howie Richard, led a team to my third championship in 4 years. I was fortunate.    Early that first September I ran my first timed mile in 6:55. I proudly made my way to the top of the Junior Varsity by the end of the year and ran a 5:06 mile. I won a race the next year and I will never forget being congratulated by the headmaster-coach in the school’s morning announcements.  Mr. Dingley retired a year later and I've always hoped he kept running for years after.   40 odd years later, I ran past the slower runners in the first couple of miles on the trail and made a point of doing what my coach had done; offering a quiet word of encouragement to each kid. I wondered whether seeing a man in his 60s running by might do for one of them what it did for me years before. Meanwhile, I also remembered how Howie Richard coached me as as a more accomplished runner 3 years later; he said when passing someone, pick up the pace, go by with certainty and show no sign of exertion, he explained, only slightly in jest, that "it demoralizes them a little and gives you an edge". Maybe I should regret those ingrained competitive instincts but at more than 4 times the age of most I passed I think I should get a pass (no pun intended) for any insensitivity, real or imagined. I did try offer encouragement but that's a different thing, right? Can you intimidate someone (a little), feel better about your own remaining ability and give encouragement all at the same time? I hope so.    I have no idea whether the team I saw in Connecticut that pre-season evening ended up a top team that year. I was impressed that most of the older kids ran the same 8 miles I did. Based on those I passed, I remember wondering whether I might still be able to make the JV team of a HS team. In reality the dead sprint at the beginning of a 3mi high-school cross country race would be a big problem. If I had any hope I’d have to use experience and wisdom (if any) to try and overcome my physical ability with a late charge from behind at the end. The real problem; the youngest and slowest kids I saw were all going to get much faster and stronger in coming months. I would not.   At just past age 60 I was still holding up ok. I could still manage 5-12 miles almost daily. A few longer runs crept below 8 minutes per mile, I even managed a 6:25 mile at the end of one good run. It all took a sudden turn with an unexpected health problem a short time after this particular evening. Having successfully dealt with my issues I’m again able to run or run/walk for shorter distances on the trail weekly, slower but just as happily. I still see competitive runners and teams, maybe the same ones; a few looking like collegiate runners home for a visit, some likely former undeveloped youngsters but not so much anymore and of course always a new crop of nervous 14 year old prospects.    As for me, maybe I should just be happy being Fred Dingley. (Larry Allen on Running is a regular MBR feature sharing the wisdom of Larry Allen, a 50 year accomplished runner and artist.  He is currently participating in the third Run The World Challenge.)

posted Sunday November 25th
by Larry Allen