The fastest 50 American marathoners in history have run a total of 57 marathons in times ranging from 2:08:47 to 2:11:53. Only 8 of these races occurred in the 1990's with all of the others occurring between 1970-89, and 8 of those occurred before 1979. Thus, 41 of them or 72% were run by 37 different runners (74%) from 1979 to 1989, which many refer to as the "Golden Decade" of American marathon running. After that, things fell apart quickly (this doesn’t include Ryan Hall’s marathon times including his 2:06 best but that doesn’t impact the data much). Of course, it’s interesting to point out that the Garmin did not exist during this “Golden Decade” of American marathon running.
So how did so many of these Americans run so fast from 1979 to 1989? Obviously there are many factors to consider but from what I’ve read and researched, these runners would “run by feel,” and often did not adhere to a rigid set daily schedule, or record every split second using a GPS or Garmin-type device. Sure, they ran everyday but they monitored their bodies and performance based on effort level and feel.
In Amby Burfoot’s book, “The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life,” Amby recalls that after his last season of collegiate cross country running he rewarded himself with “several months of simple, unfocused training.” Amby kept running regularly because he had goals for the following spring which included the Boston Marathon which he won. In any event, for several months Amby engaged in “non-specific” training. He just woke up, put on his shoes, and ran without any watch, without regards to intervals, hill repeats, long runs, easy runs, tempo runs, split times, etc., and he just ran in every direction, on any terrain, all at comfortably to comfortably hard paces as dictated by his body.
In other words, he “ran by feel.” Then, January rolls around and he decides to enter a 2 mile race which included the world record holder and several fast Californians. To quote Amby’s recount of the race, “I have never run so light on my feet, never picked up my knees so effortlessly to launch to the next stride. I seem to skim across the track like flat rock on water.” Well, Amby took 3rd place in 8:45 and that was: 20 seconds faster than expected.
He goes on say:
“This race taught me a profound lesson. The simple approach is often the best. As we enter ever more technical times, with ever increasing levels of complexity and decision making, we need to remember the simple path can harness great powers.
We were meant to run and we do so naturally when left to our own devices. Watch a group of children on the playground and they play games like tag where they run for a while, squeal with delight, and then rest until they are fully recovered again. Run and rest, run and rest. It is the perfect exercise program because it is coded in our genes. It is what our forefathers did millions of years ago. “
Many of us (including myself) search for running programs, hire coaches, run according to devices on Garmins’s and GPS devices, and the like, when if you want the best and most “Effective Training Program,” just watch and copy children.
Amby ends by saying, “. . . my own running has often been best when I have left it alone, left it simple.”
Back to the alarming data whereby 72% of the fastest American marathon times were recorded between 1979 and 1989 and you have to ask, “If we taking one step forward and two step back?”
What do I think? Well, let’s just say I haven’t put on my Garmin in the past week and I’m enjoying my running more than ever.