Although I run year-round, my favorite running season is fall. I'm not sure why, but I think it's because that's when I met Paul Durbin, the best runner I've ever known.
By "best," I don't mean the fastest - though he was surely faster than most. Instead, it's because of Paul's attitude toward and understanding of running; if anyone was a running guru, it was him.
We first met at a Paul Smith's fun run in September 1973. I was there early, helping set up, when I noticed a guy running around the quad.
I asked who he was, but no one knew. I went back to arrange the race details; he kept on running.
Finally, when the fun run was about to start, he came over with a big smile plastered across his mug and introduced himself, shaking hands with everyone there.
"So how far did you just run?" I asked.
"Oh, I don't know," he said. "I think about five miles."
Since the fun run itself was three miles, I suspected this guy was hardly the average bear. Then, after the fun run was over and he ran another three miles to cool down, my suspicions were confirmed.
Not that Paul ran obsessively - he didn't. Instead, he ran for only one reason - he loved to run.
As a kid, Paul had loved to run just for the heck of it. Then, in high school, he started to compete. He was a natural, who quickly became a stellar middle-distance runner, which he continued to be in college and the U.S. Army.
But then, at his running peak, he had a sudden epiphany: He no longer liked to run. He didn't like to train, to compete, he didn't even like to win. And being the thinker he was, he put serious time into figuring out what he could do to change it.
His decision, while self-evident to most people, is something that all too often eludes competitors. He decided from then on he was going to run for himself and only himself. He'd set up his own training system, run his own times and never again compete.
To this end, when he ran road races, he'd pay the fee, but wouldn't sign the roster, nor would he cross the finish line. This lifted the burden of competition from him and was a solution as ingenious and individualistic as Paul himself.
I certainly respected him for his principles, but they weren't mine. Uh-huh, I ran for faster times, better places, finishing ahead of this guy, that guy, or if I could do it - all those guys.
I was, in fact, so competitive that I refused to go for training runs with slower runners. Of course, I never actually phrased it like that. Instead, I said I couldn't run that slow. This was ridiculous, since Paul, who was much faster than me, ran with anyone who wanted to, regardless of how slow they were. He loved the act of running itself. I was hung up on other considerations but was too oblivious to realize it.
Eventually, I came to understand Paul's running philosophy perfectly - not thanks to my intelligence, but rather to my connective tissue.
I'd run a series of hard races without adequate recovery, which resulted in a knee injury. It wasn't serious enough for surgery, but it was painful enough to make running even a mile impossible (and this was after years of regular 10-mile runs).
I tried heat, ice, aspirin and even quit running for a while. But every time I tried to run again, the pain stopped me within sight of my house. This went on for weeks, until somehow I hit on a new approach: I'd go for a jaunt at a pace I thought of as disgracefully slow.
I didand whattaya know - it didn't hurt!
It was a mind-blowing revelation: All I had to do was run really slowly and I could run as far as I wanted. And in the process of doing it, not only did I run painlessly, but I gained another benefit, one I never even realized I was missing - I started to like running again.
Jogging the jog
My knee took about a year-and-a-half to heal, and when it finally did, I think my psyche did as well. I never again cared how fast I ran or where I placed in a race, and running became something it was supposed to be - fun.
This all climaxed in Hanover, N.H., in the best race I ever ran.
Paul and I had gone there, he to run the marathon, me to run the half. It was a grey, rainy day, but warm and windless. So the race conditions, while not ideal, weren't all that bad. This was good because Paul was going to try to run a sub-3:10, a time he'd never run and one that'd require him maximizing his training and determination.
Me, I was just going to plod my way through the half, so I had no expectations whatsoever.
The half-marathon began at the halfway point of the marathon and the start took place after most of the marathoners had gone by. While I was waiting, Paul sped by, maintaining his sub-3:10 pace and an ear-to-ear grin. I gave him a wave and a thumbs-up, and then it was time for the half to start.
I started at the back of the pack, as I'd begun doing once I no longer defined myself as a speed demon, and ran comfortably, paying no attention to my speed. After a while, I started passing runners who'd started slowing down and by the time I'd hit the six-mile mark, I was running beside a 30-ish woman and we started chatting.
Her name was Helen; she had a husband and a 3-year-old daughter, who with her parents, were waiting for her at the finish line.
"Sounds great," I said.
"I don't know," she said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because I don't think I'll make it," she said.
I asked her why not and she said that not only was this her first race, but it was the first time she'd run more than six miles and she still had seven to go, and had no idea how she could do it. I asked her how much training she'd done, and she told me.
"That's more than adequate," I said. "All you have to do is maintain your pace."
"Easier said than done," she said. "I just don't think I can finish."
I understood exactly what she was going through. She had the training; she just didn't have the confidence. This is normal for first-time runners, but if you don't have confidence, you need persistence. And since another person can often help you go beyond your limits, I decided to be that person for her. Paul had helped me run beyond my self-imposed limits; it was time for me to bestow the favor on someone else.
Long story short: When Helen and I trotted across the finish line, her family swarmed her as if she'd just won the Boston Marathon.
I spotted Paul and went over to him. Of course, he was wearing his trademark smile.
"So," I said, "did you break 3:10?"
"Nope," he said. "Hit the wall at 24 and couldn't maintain my pace. Came in at 3:12."
"That's too bad," I said.
"Oh, not at all," he said, ever the optimist. "It was a wonderful run - great field, wonderful weather, absolutely elegant!"
Just then Helen came over and I introduced her to Paul.
"I just wanted to thank you," she said.
"For what?" I said.
"Listen," she said, "you're the reason I ever finished."
"Actually, I'm the reason things seemed to go a bit easier," I said.
"But he," I said, pointing my thumb at Paul, "He's the reason you finished."