Running After Your Prime: Wise Words From Hal Lieberman

For many of us on CPTC, running is, for the most part, easy. Running at peak levels and setting PRs requires extra effort, but the basic process, the motivation, the perceived effort, and other running details can remain relatively consistent for long periods of time. Taken as a whole, running can be somewhat robotic and the reaction function is easy to understand – put the work in and see the benefits in your performance. And then one day, things start to change ever so slightly, and unfortunately, sometimes the cause of that shift is hard to reverse. Although the list of things that can create difficulties and challenges is different for everyone, aging is one item on that list that none of us can avoid and often (always?) very hard to reverse.

The first signs of aging can show up at almost any age imaginable. Although the inevitable slowing cannot be planned for, it’s always helpful to hear from those who have handled it best. CPTC is filled with extremely successful Masters runners who made adjustments and continued to compete, win, and set records for many years after lifetime PRs were set. Hal Lieberman, who has stood on the podium at multiple national championship meets and is the WR holder in the 70+ indoor 4×800 relay, shared some of his own thoughts and reflections in the piece below. Although I’m sure we all think we’re too young to start thinking about aging (from recent college grads to our 50+ team), when it is time, thoughts from a runner with lifelong achievements like Hal are invaluable. Thank you Hal!


Running After Your Prime

Lots of books and articles have been written about masters runners – how they should train, deal with injuries, remain competitive.  I have nothing original or unique to add.  Rather, as one of the senior members in the Club who still competes in track, I write simply to impart some personal insights related to how and why I get to the starting line and have been running faster than most men my age.  In doing this, I hope to inspire my younger CPTC mates to likewise enjoy running competitively for a long time.

First, a little history for context.  I am now 74.  I began my track career in 1958 while in high school – yes, almost 60 years ago!  – as a middle distance runner (mile, 880, 440), and continued on the college varsity cross country and track teams (U. California (Berkley) and U. Chicago).  Parenthetically, both of my college coaches – Brutus Hamilton and Ted Haydon – were inducted into the T&F Coaches Hall of Fame, and you can see their names at the Armory.  How many runners were trained by two such illustrious coaches?  I was blessed.

After college, NYRR cross country and road races were my thing for many years before joining CPTC almost ten years ago.  That’s when I came back to track.  Devon was the main inspiration for my rejuvenated track career, as well as Sid Howard and Frank Handelman.  A few national masters medals, winning the 5th Ave. mile in 2013, and our 2014 indoor world record in the 70+ 4x800m relay (with Sid) were the highlights these past years.  But now, on the threshold of a new age group, it’s time to reflect a bit.

How did I get here, and what can I say to younger runners who want to keep going?  My three-part answer is:  luck; training smart; and coming to terms with the aging process.

Luck and Life Style

Sounds obvious, but no matter how physically fit and mentally strong, health plays a crucial role in running longevity, as in life.  Some number of us are dealt a bad hand.  Nothing more to say except stay well by sleeping, eating healthy foods, and, most crucially, keep running.

Training Smart

Ten years ago Devon told me I would be “competitive” at 800m, but not for how long.  Apart from luck and life style choices, training right and avoiding serious injuries – all runners get repetitive stress injuries – are the key, and the two things are of course totally related.  My routine has generally been to run every other day; run only on soft surfaces where possible; avoid uneven surfaces; warm up; stretch; warm down; and hit the weight room at least once a week.  No magic here.

But there’s a rub.  Older runners also need to simply back off.  Everyone is different, but running shorter, quicker intervals, with less rest, has worked best for me.  Not a lot of mileage per week.

Attending Devon’s or Tony’s prescribed workouts is very important.  However, for me the workout has to be adjusted to reflect current fitness level and how one feels on that day.  Having a training partner or partners is great, but older runners find it difficult to find such persons.  So, we often end up training alone.  Parenthetically, running 8x400m intervals in 95 seconds feels exactly like it did when running the same workout in 70 seconds 50 years ago, and the aerobic benefits are probably the same relative to age.

Thus, my thoughts on running and training, in summary, are to stay in shape by adjusting pace, rest, and number of intervals to one’s current capacity, and avoiding hard surfaces.  I learned to listen to my body, not try to overdo it, to back off when hurting or tired, and at the same time not get too lazy.  No one workout is worth it.  The only goal is to get to the starting line.

Coming to Terms

“Get to the starting line” applies to the mental part as well.  One’s psychological adjustment to decline in performance is just as important as the actual physical adjustment to training and racing.  Accepting the hard fact that I am slowing down – although I did improve for a few years between ages 65-68 – and will continue to do so, requires psychological work for any competitive runner.

Masters runners sometimes speak nostalgically about their accomplishments in the past.  Nothing wrong with that, except it doesn’t matter for the most part.  Masters track is about age group competition.  There should be something quite satisfying about standing at the starting line before the gun goes off and glancing around, observing the other runners in your age group hoping to beat you.  They may have white or thinning hair (in the case of men), but they are all quite fit, strong, competitive, and generally very happy people.  It is a true joy to be among them, and to realize how fortunate we are to be at this place doing this thing at our age.

That’s the mental adjustment.  Be thankful for and proud of what you can do, for what you have left in the tank, for the ability to run (relatively) fast, for the camaraderie of CPTC and all of the trackies.  Don’t think about how much you’ve lost, or how fast or strong you were a few years ago.  No one cares.  Keep going no matter what; keep training if, as I have, the strong motivation still to compete.

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