On Running With Elite Athletes and Getting a PR at Age 46

Paul L. Underwood
by Paul L. Underwood
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On Running With Elite Athletes and Getting a PR at Age 46

“When it seems like things are falling apart, they may actually be falling into place.”

So says Matt Llano, one of the younger runners writer Matt Fitzgerald trained with while attempting to break his own personal record for the marathon at the age of 46, which he documents in his new book “Running the Dream.” It’s a sentiment that feels relevant right now, as we all attempt to navigate our new normal, and determine whether some of the silver linings from the shutdown — a running boom, a decreased reliance on cars — might be worth keeping around during whatever happens next.

Of course, that’s easy for some of us to say. For Fitzgerald, however, this time also included enduring what he says he’s “99% sure” was COVID-19. For a marathoner to struggle with walking up the stairs, or do anything that required exerting himself, it was a scary experience, though one he is now recovered from.

We spoke to him about that, as well as what he learned from the experience detailed in his new book. He trained with the pro runners of the Northern Arizona Elite for a full summer — all in an attempt to see how fast he could go if he did everything the pros do. He also wanted to do something unheard of — shave time off his personal record of 2:41 at an age where all of us are, despite our best efforts, slowing down. Here’s how he beat both a potentially fatal illness and Father Time.

Q: First things first: Where are you sheltering in place these days?
Fitzgerald: I’m one of the lucky ones in one sense because I worked from home already, in the Central Valley in Northern California. And I actually had coronavirus.

Q: You said you were 99% sure you had the virus. How are you recovering? How’s your family holding up?
Fitzgerald: I was really on a roll this winter. Having fun. Performing well. I went to Atlanta for the Olympic trials — I was working [as a writer], but then ran the Atlanta marathon the next day. I was in four planes, a hotel, drank too much afterward. It was a perfect storm.

I haven’t been able to get tested, but I would bet my life savings it was. So I went from that height of fitness to … I have never lost so much so fast. It was just a lost month. There was one 13-day stretch where I could not do a lick of exercise. At the worst of it, I had trouble climbing stairs to get to the bedroom. When you’re in it, it feels like it’s never gonna end. But it does. Once I had my health back and could do a few tentative workouts, it’s just the way I’m wired, I started thinking OK, when can I race? [Laughs.]

Just the intellectual challenge of recovery. I wanted to see how quickly I could come back. It takes hard work, but also using all my experience and knowledge to make smart decisions. Brute force isn’t gonna do it.

Q: Now to the book. It’s personal, but in a different way from your last one, “Life Is a Marathon,” which explored your marriage in a direct and personal way. Did that make it harder or easier to write?
Fitzgerald: For me running is an inner journey, even a vehicle for personal and spiritual growth, and I value that dimension of it immensely. But it’s also a sport. As long as I’ve been at it, and I’m no spring chicken anymore, I love that dimension of it. “Life Is a Marathon” celebrates the journey. “Running the Dream” celebrates running as a sport. Yes, they’re both personal stories, but I feel like the two complemented each other well. I didn’t feel like I was trotting the same ground again.

Q: Where did the idea come from?
Fitzgerald: The trigger really was reading “Paper Lion,” by George Plimpton, where he did exactly what I ended up doing in a bunch of sports. In “Paper Lion,” football is kind of his signature experience. I thought I needed to do this in running.

Q: Why did you do this now, as opposed to 10 years ago or 5 years into the future?
Fitzgerald: I didn’t do it when I was younger because I was on the same journey a lot of serious runners are on, which is chasing PRs. And as I described in the book, it was a disappointing journey for me because I never felt like I achieved what I thought I could. I was never gonna go to the Olympics, I didn’t have money riding on the performance — I just cared.

And then suddenly I’m 40 years old, 41, 42, and I stopped setting PRs. I decided I just missed my chance. It triggered a bona fide midlife crisis for me. I saw I was over the hill as an athlete. When I realized it was over, I felt like the rug was swept out from under me.

I needed a different mindset, and that became adventure. Running places I hadn’t been before. And when I came up with this idea, that’s really what it was — it was an adventure.

There was a message I wanted to communicate to other runners: That it’s not your talent that should determine how much you put into your hobby. It’s your passion.

I wondered how fast could I go if I went all in for a period of time. I didn’t really expect it to end the way it did.

And spoiler alert: It ends well.
Fitzgerald: Yes!

Q: How did that affect the story?
Fitzgerald: It was a highwire act. I got injured, and I worried I might not even make it to the starting line. My wife, my dog and I had picked up stakes to move to Flagstaff for a summer. I put work on hold. It would’ve been very costly to fall off that high wire. I didn’t have a specific definition of what a happy ending would be. But I knew it had to be a happy ending of some kind.

Q: Seems like a lot of pressure.
Fitzgerald: It would’ve been painful to have it end poorly. But I liked that pressure. Part of what I wanted to do was to really experience what it’s like to be a professional athlete. It’s risky. You have to perform. It’s “What have you done for me lately?” The careers don’t last long. I welcomed the pressure. It wasn’t the same they’re under, but it was pressure.

I remember when I was running the marathon. They’re painful. You’re trying to run faster than you ever have before at age 46. You get out there and there’s that inner weakling, that voice starts to jabber at you, “Maybe take the foot off the gas.” “Isn’t 99% good enough for you?” I thought about the people who were following along, and it was good pressure.

Q: What do you hope someone takes away from reading this book?
Fitzgerald: More than anything, I want to inspire my fellow runners who are passionate about running as a sport. To not allow artificial limits to be imposed on how much they put into it. You might just take it all the way for one summer and then back off. Or maybe you take it a little further.

Also, I thought I knew a lot about running. But I was with the real pros, and the proof in the pudding is tasting: I got better. And there are all kinds of practical nuggets to take away. I was [running] at 7,000 feet — not everybody can move to Flagstaff. But there are workouts in the book a reader can do.

Q: The coach you trained with mentions setting goals that aren’t time-oriented, and that seems like it had resonance for you. It’s also a big thing for our audience to think about. What are your thoughts on that? How can someone use those kinds of goals to improve their performance and enjoyment?
Fitzgerald: Having read the book, you know that there’s a number that appears all throughout the book that had this totemic significance for me. It was the marathon time I wanted and had never achieved. I was obsessed with that number for years. But what ends up coming out of the story, and that speech just highlights it, is those types of goals are just an excuse.

The number doesn’t matter at all. It just doesn’t. Not to get too philosophical, but one of the things that makes humanity such an amazing species is we just go for it. We look at the moon and think, let’s go stand on that thing. You can run for a million different reasons and a million different journeys, but one flavor of journey you can go on as a runner is to set goals that transform you in the process of pursuing it. Whether or not you achieve that number, what you experience in pursuit of that number can be rich on so many levels.

You don’t need those numbers at all to set yourself up for an amazing journey as a runner. Even as a coach I’ll have an athlete say “I did this, now what should I do?” I’m not going to tell you! What you’re gonna do next is whatever gets you jumping out of the bed in the morning, excited for your next run. Ultimately you just want to have a great experience as a runner. What constitutes that, what gives you your kicks or thrills, that comes from inside you.

Q: What did you learn about yourself from this experience?
Fitzgerald: I never really thought of myself as tightly wound. Intense? Yeah. But not really uptight.

From the very first page of the book, you start by seeing my wife and I leaving the house for this trip. And I forgot something, and got pissed off. I lost one minute in a 10-and-a-half-hour drive, and I got upset. My teammates who were half my age would have to talk me down from some ledge if I forgot something. My hair was on fire. The other runners were a lot more mellow — they worked hard, but they knew how to chill out. And it was interesting to see what these athletes had in common, just on a psychological level. I wasn’t a pro just because I didn’t win the genetic lottery, but also because of my mentality.

Q: For those of us who can’t spend the summer training and living with pro athletes who are crazy-serious about what they eat, what are some ways we can make better choices and keep temptation at bay? Were you able to adjust your choices when you returned to life as an amateur?
Fitzgerald: The thing I saw while I was in Flagstaff is that pro runners aren’t “super crazy” about what they eat. We are. Matt Llano’s diet is very typical of that of a pro runner. He doesn’t try to eliminate or severely restrict any food groups or macronutrients the way so many popular diets do. His meals tended to be very inclusive and well-rounded. They were also delicious. The only feature that made them different from how others eat is that included few processed foods.

I found it so easy to eat more or less the same way because I wasn’t really saying “no” to anything. I didn’t feel deprived because a well-seasoned quinoa bowl with lots of grilled veggies and grilled fish or whatever, is just as yummy as any burger. And because unprocessed foods are filling, I didn’t need to go hungry to lose a few pounds during my time as a fake pro runner. So, my advice to mortals is not to make assumptions about how the pros eat. Copying their diet is something anyone can do and benefit from.

About the Author

Paul L. Underwood
Paul L. Underwood

Paul is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He tweets here, he Instagrams there and he posts the occasional deep thought at plunderwood.com. He’s probably working on a run mix as you read this.

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