In 1973 I was a 35-year old, slightly overweight smoker, thinking I really needed to consider a program of physical fitness. It was at a cocktail party where a neighbor mentioned an Air Force program developed by Ken Cooper called Aerobics. Aerobics being the demand for oxygen (heavy breathing) caused by heightened exercise. The thing that appealed to me was the program suggested a variety of exercises such as bike riding, swimming, and some innocuous activities such as singles tennis or walking while playing golf.
Cooper’s program suggested you start with a fitness test of fast walking/jogging for twelve minutes to see how much distance you covered in that time. The results gave an indication of a person’s fitness level. With that information, Copper then suggested a target weekly point value of aerobic points to become fit and weekly points to maintain conditioning.
My twelve minute evaluation test wasn’t as bad as I expected. That was encouraging and I was off and biking …and swimming … and jogging. I loved keeping records and the Aerobics program was right up my alley.
I discovered jogging was the most efficient way of earning aerobic points and although the program included other exercises, this was the one I turned to when needing a few more points to reach my weekly goal.
I mentioned I was a smoker and was still smoking when I started the program. Curious if by not smoking I could improve my three-mile running time, I decided to test it. I quit, cold turkey for a week. By the end of that week, I couldn’t believe how much better I felt and how much faster I could run. I thought my stopwatch was in error. That week was the last time I ever inhaled tobacco smoke. Soon I was pushing myself to run ten miles on the weekend. Having played football I college, our wind sprints in training revealed I wasn’t a fast sprinter, but maybe long-distance running was my thing.
Our town was holding a 10K fun run. That’s a 6.2 mile distance. Did I dare test this new ability by entering a race? The pace I set when doing my daily 3 mile runs was eight minutes per mile. That, I found was the thrushold to heavy breathing. It was a breathless pace I felt I could comfortably maintain. However, could I run 6.2 miles at the 8 minute pace? I signed up to try.
My stopwatch would verify the pace at each mile marker, but how would I know if I had started too fast or too slow? In the race that day was Ray Sears, a locally famous 70-year-old runner who had been featured in Runnner’s World Magazine. Before the race I overheard Ray say he ran at an eight minute pace. Ah ha! I would just follow Ray.
The gun was fired and off we went; Ray, me, and several hundred other runners. At less than I mile I was gasping for air big time. I needed to slow down and watched Ray disappear in the distance. As it turned out, I recovered and finished in just a few seconds over the eight minute pace. Catching up to Ray, I asked, “I thought I heard you say you ran an eight minute pace.”
“Oh, yeah,” he replied, “for a marathon. In these short races, I run much faster.” Geeze.
A few weeks later, I was reading about the Indianapolis Mini Marathon held during Indianapolis 500 week. A mini marathon is half a full marathon or 13.1 miles long. Could I do it? Why not, my 10-mile weekend runs were now routine.
I completed the mini and unbelievably was able to maintain an eight minute per mile pace. So guess what? Now I’m thinking about a full 26-mile marathon. And not just any marathon, I’m thinking about the Boston Marathon. Why not? I’ve got one 10K and one mini marathon under my belt, so I must be ready.
The Boston requires qualification to enter. Participants must have completed a previous marathon within the previous year and run it at a qualifying time determined by their age. I had just turned 40-years-old and my qualifying time would be to run the distance in under three hours and thirty minutes. Well guess what? That works out to an eight-minute-per-mile pace.
The Joe Steele Rocket City Marathon was being held in Huntsville, Alabama that December. December would give me several months to increase my training mileage, run the marathon and then if successful, a few months to recover before traveling to Boston in April for the big event.
In December, 1979, a couple months after my 40th birthday, my wife and I drove to Alabama for the race. I had prepared a wrist band with target split times noted for each mile leading to the sub-three hour, thirty minute goal.
It was a cool day, with a drop or two of rain in the air, perfect for running. The race started high on a hill overlooking Huntsville in a state park. Cruising down the elevation intent only on establishing the 8-minute pace, I discovered the downhill enabled me to run easily and my split at the end of one mile was actually one minute faster than planned. That turned out to be a comfortable advantage giving me a one minute cushion at each subsequent mile marker. I finished the race in 3:28:25 with one minute and 35 seconds to spare. I was going to Boston!
I wrote about the Boston experience in this blog in January, 2019. My finish time was slower 3:41, primarily because my starting position among to 8,000 other Boston runners was ten minutes back from the starting line. I was a good fifteen minutes into the race before I could find some open space to run. Nevertheless, it was a thrill being cheered by the spectators ten deep along every mile of the race.
Thus began many years of exciting running experiences, new friends, and great memories.