In 2017, we featured a piece written by our own Hal Lieberman detailing his approach to and advice for maintaining a successful running career as a masters runner. This winter, Hal proved himself to be an authority on the subject when he took home gold and silver medals at the USATF Masters Indoor Track & Field Championships. I recently had the pleasure to catch up with Hal and hear about his championship races, his start in running, some of the more memorable moments from a long and successful career, and more on the roles that running and his career play in his life today.
The 2018 USATF Masters Indoor Track & Field Championships were held in Landover, MD in mid-March. Hal’s winter season had, in his own words, been “somewhat disappointing” and “mediocre,” but he knew that his focus would be the national championships that conveniently occurred shortly after he turned 75, pushing him into a new age group. Hal’s first event was the 1500m, in which he impressively placed second. A silver medal in a national championship is nothing to scoff at, but Hal was slightly disappointed when his chief rival, Charlie Patterson of the Atlanta Track Club, passed him in the last lap to take the victory. Hal knew he would have a chance for revenge in the 800m, his focus event, the following day.
When the 800m started, a few competitors took off, but Hal knew that Charlie was the one to worry about, and Charlie was content to sit on Hal’s shoulder from the gun. Prior to the race, Devon emphasized to Hal that he shouldn’t worry about the pace – “just race.” I watched the video replay with Hal, and it was clear that he was in control from the gun, executing his strategy from start to finish. “I was able to blast the last 200m because the pace was relatively slow,” Hal noted. With around 150m to go, Hal made his move and the field, including chief rival Charlie, had no answer. Hal won comfortably in 3:22:76, over 3s faster than the runner-up. Hal wasn’t impressed with his time, but he admitted that the gold medal (with the previous day’s silver) was a great pay-off in the races that counted after a winter season that didn’t get off to the start he had wanted.
Health-permitting (something that never changes with age!), Hal has big plans for the remainder of 2018. In addition to competing at July’s Outdoor Nationals in Spokane, where he may consider adding the 200m to his current 800m/1500m line-up, Hal also has his sights set on the Fifth Avenue Mile in September. He’s now in the process of transitioning from the indoor track to the outdoor track, and while he expects to do the bulk of his training at Columbia, he admits that “any soft surface” is critical to helping him stay healthy. As we discussed his racing plans, Hal emphasized that he enjoys the masters running “community” and is always impressed by the health and fitness of his fellow competitors whenever he toes a starting line.
Based on our conversation, it’s clear that Hal has no plans to stop running anytime soon. To Hal, “running is not an option.” In addition to being a necessity for physical health, Hal thinks that running keeps him mentally healthy. Hal feels similarly as an active litigator, and he’s been able to draw on experiences from law to help with running, and vice versa. Hal sees parallels between the nervous excitement and adrenaline at the starting line of a race and going in front of a judge. In both cases, with proper preparation and experience, those nerves are gone after 30 seconds and you’re just performing. “Competitive running breeds a certain mental toughness that lets you stand up and perform.”
When I asked Hal about what he liked most about CPTC, he was quick to credit the coaches. In addition to training guidance, he likes that they’re “tough when needed.” Hal joined CPTC a little over 10 years ago when his performance in local 5k/10k races started to plateau. At the urging of his wife, he showed up to the Armory to find a team, and after a conversation with Devon about his running background and goals, she encouraged Hal to be an 800m runner and the successes came quickly. At his first masters national championships in Boston as a 65-year old, Hal took home a bronze medal. Hal still remembers Coach Tony’s reaction after showing him the medal – “You’ve got to be kidding me! People come here year after year and never win a thing and you walk away with a medal on your first try!”
Hal mentioned it in his own article, but he reiterated the importance of coaching in our follow-up conversation as well. Hal values the coaching he receives now with CPTC, but he knows that his good fortune started many years ago. Hal feels that he was “blessed” to have two exceptional coaches during his college running career – Brutus Hamilton during his time at UC Berkeley and Ted Haydon at the University of Chicago. Both Hamilton and Haydon are USATF Hall of Famers. Over the years, Hal has heard from many of his masters rivals that they too felt fortunate to have had the guidance of legendary coaches early in their careers. Take advantage of all the positive influences coaches provide for your running – you may find their passion and insight provide guidance well after you’ve moved onto new teams and places!
Hal and I talked at length about some of his more memorable races. “I have a few memorable races, and those in particular – you can’t ever forget them…you generally want to avoid thinking about how good and fast you were in the past, but those memorable races are worth it!”
Hal’s first race was memorable for other reasons. As a high school junior, Hal’s first competition was a 440-yard race on a flat 220-yard indoor track. The initial excitement of racing took him out fast with the leaders, but he still remembers the pain setting in at around the 330-yard mark. And then, as Hal described it, “rigor mortis set in.” After staggering to the finish and collapsing, Hal swore that he would never race again. Luckily for us, he did. Also, it’s nice to see that many running careers initially start with swearing off future participation!
It didn’t take long for Hal to make a name for himself as a miler in high school, and two late-season races from his senior year still stand out to this day. The first was a dual meet that featured a showdown with the reigning league champion miler. On that day, Hal got the best of his competition, matching every move his rival made before kicking to a 4:42-43 for the win. He still fondly remembers how confident and powerful he felt at the 300m mark when he started making his move. Unfortunately, his rival learned from his lessons during that year’s league championship, moving early to negate Hal’s kick. But, it was an early lesson learned about strategizing and learning from losses that Hal is still applying in his racing today – case in point: knocking off his rival in this year’s 800m!
That feeling of power, confidence, and fluidity is what made one of Hal’s most memorable college races stand out. Running for the University of Chicago in the DIII National Cross Country Championships on the Wheaton College golf course, Hal powered through the field to take 44th by running ~20 minutes for 4 miles, showing the miler had developed some range in college. Hal ran primarily grass courses barefoot, and he still remembers the feeling of that course that day. Miles 2 and 3 were a particular strength, and his confidence ballooned as he passed one runner after another. The result was impressive, but he was most satisfied with the fact that no one passed him after the first mile on that day.
Some of Hal’s most memorable races as a CPTC member were actually a series of attempts at the world record for the 4x800m relay for the 70-year old age division. Hal noticed what he said looked to be a “soft” record and started pulling together a CPTC team to go after it in the Armory. Although the initial meet was snowed out, the CPTC team ran under the previous record only to run into certification issues because of the snow-out. Ultimately, a German team topped the CPTC effort anyway, but Hal’s pursuit wasn’t done. Showing the persistence and competitive edge that keeps him competing at the level of a national champion, Hal took another shot in the following year, calling on CPTC teammate Sid Howard as well as some of his rivals from other states. Despite his recruits stressing him out by scheduling skiing vacations and running races shortly before the attempt, Hal and the team he organized ran 11:33 to top the record of 11:36 set by the German team the previous year. Another trait that keeps people successful through the years? Never being satisfied. To this day, Hal still thinks they left some time on the track that day by failing to run hard through the line.
If you’re still reading this, you’re obviously as interested in Hal’s life and running career was much as I was during our hour-plus long meeting. If you see him at the track, stop and say hello – Hal has always enjoyed watching and cheering for the latest batch of CPTC speedsters, particularly those he’s able to follow over multi-year progressions. Plus, you may learn a thing or two about how to turn a bit of skill in the sport into a lifelong hobby that yields national championship medals in the long run!