Matt Fitzgerald running in Flagstaff, AZ
(Photo: courtesy Matt Fitzgerald)

An Ordinary Runner’s Elite Training Dream

In an excerpt from Running the Dream, Matt Fitzgerald describes a workout during his summer of training with the Northern Arizona Elite.

Matt Fitzgerald running in Flagstaff, AZ

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Matt Fitzgerald has been running (and writing about running) for most of his adult life. But, like many passionate amateur runners, he never felt he was quite fulfilling his potential. If he follows the training, nutrition, and lifestyle of an elite runner, just how fast could he go?

In his mid-forties, Matt at last has the freedom to do nothing but train, if only for the span of one summer. The time is now. He convinces Ben Rosario, the coach of Northern Arizona Elite, to let him train with a roster of national champions and Olympic hopefuls in the running mecca of Flagstaff, Arizona, leading up to the Chicago Marathon. The results will completely redefine Matt’s notion of what is possible, not only for himself but for any runner.

In this excerpt from Running the Dream, Matt runs one of NAZ’s unique workouts. 

NAZ Team shot

67 Days to Chicago

Ever since Coach Ben ordered me to take last Thursday off to rest my degenerating left Achilles and then held me out of the next day’s leg speed workout, I’ve been counting the hours to today’s tempo run, studying the coded description of the session on Final Surge (the website Ben uses to deliver training prescriptions) the way I once mooned over a certain remote control car in the 1980 Sears Wish Book. Fourteen miles on Lake Mary Road, including four two-mile tempo efforts at 6:25 per mile. I needed this run, mentally as much as physically, regarding it as symbolic of getting back on track toward Chicago.

At a dinner held last night at Pizzicletta in celebration of Matt’s twenty-ninth birthday, I asked Coach Ben to explain the purpose of the workout, which, like so many of the things I’ve done here, is unlike anything I’ve ever done on my own.

“It’s just another session that falls under the high-end aerobic category,” he said. “When I was running with the Hansons, they had us do a ton of this stuff in marathon training, and I thought I got a lot out of it. I’ve seen the same results with the runners I coach. There are any number of ways you can slice it—four times two miles, two times four miles, three times three miles—but the general idea is to do a reasonably large volume of work at an effort that’s a little harder than marathon effort. I like it because it’s fast, but not so fast that you can’t keep it up for a while. If you do enough of it, actual marathon pace starts to feel easier. In my opinion, too many runners, even pro runners, train for marathons the same way they train for 10Ks, except with long runs added in. They do mile repeats at 10K pace and say it makes marathon pace seem easier. Well, sure it does—for a few miles! But a marathon is twenty-six point two miles. It’s a different animal.” .. “Guilty as charged,” I said.

Marlon Roudette’s infectious club banger “Everybody Feeling Something,” my chosen theme song for the fantasy I’m currently living, blared through the Fun Mobile’s open windows at an inappropriate volume for eight o’clock in the morning as I pulled up next to Faubs’s Outback and Veronica’s Nissan Versa in the dirt parking area adjoining Lake Mary Start, as it’s known. We were soon joined by Matt, Amy, Steph and Ben Bruce, Rochelle, Coach Ben, and my companions from Sunday’s long run—Sarah Crouch and Bob Tusso. It has come to my attention in the three days that have passed since Bob’s and my first encounter that he is something of a personality in the Flagstaff running scene, a universally liked and ubiquitous man-about-town whose nickname is a play on his surname: Too Slow. Only in Flagstaff is a 2:45 marathoner called Too Slow.

During the warm-up Bob made a seemingly casual inquiry about my workout, which I described with the zealousness of a religious nut seeking converts.

“Mind if I jump in with you?” he asked.

“Not at all,” I said. “But don’t you have a workout of your own planned?”..“Uh, yes and no.”..Back at the parking area, the ritual change of footwear was performed, everyone swapping out trainers for racing flats, and this time I took part as well, having cadged a pair of Hoka Tracers at Run Flagstaff last week. “I think I shot my wad in the warm-up,” I joked, addressing Ben Bruce, who sat on his rear bumper with one ankle crossed over the opposite knee, lacing a shoe à la Mister Rogers. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through the actual workout.”..“Me, too,” Ben said, disregarding my tone. “Seriously. Some days, just getting out of bed is so hard I want to be done with it.”..“I know what you mean,” Faubs chimed in. He was standing nearby shaking a freshly mixed bottle of Maurten, a high-tech sports drink not  yet available to the public that the team is testing. “I have days when I want to go down for a nap and never wake up.”..“Jesus Christ!” I said.

Truth be told, I wasn’t quite so appalled by my teammates’ morbidness as I pretended. Having been with them almost four weeks now, I’ve gotten used to the gallows humor that is routinely traded among the guys especially. Professional running is a relentless grind, no matter how much you love the sport. Two runs a day, seven days a week, forty-eight weeks a year, plus all the other stuff: strength training, tortuous massages, PT appointments, a burdensome need for sleep. For these folks, voicing the occasional unserious suicidal ideation just might be the only alternative to quitting for real.

As the slowest runner, I again had the honor of starting first. When I was double-knotted and ready, I gave Coach Ben the nod and he and Bob and I moseyed up to the stenciled yellow “S” that marks Lake Mary Start—the first of the sixty-four paint daubs Ben and Jen touch up every spring.

Matt Fitzgerald and Bob Tusso head out for a NAZ workout

“Do we go when you tell us to or do we just go?” I asked Ben.

“Go!”..We went, Bob keying off me as I keyed off my watch, remembering the promise I’d made to Coach Ben after my last run on Lake Mary Road to not run faster just because I could. And I meant to keep it—I really did. But 6:25 per mile felt so laughably easy that, when Too Slow became restless and began stretching the invisible gangline between us like a sled team’s alpha dog, I allowed myself to be pulled along. We hit Mile 1 in 6:14, at which point Bob sped up even more and I reluctantly let him go.

“Too fast, Too Slow!” I called after him, pleased with my cleverness. I completed the second mile a few paces behind Bob in 6:07, still feeling as relaxed as a tanned man in a hammock sipping from a tall glass of iced tea. Coach Ben was waiting for us at the two-mile mark with my bottle, which I grabbed on the fly.

“What was your time?” he called after me.

“Just a hair fast!” I fudged.

Bob and I jogged side by side for half a mile and then started the second rep. He pulled away from me sooner this time and finished several seconds before I did. Again Ben waited with my bottle, and again he asked for my time.

“Twelve twenty-four,” I confessed.

His head dropped. I was supposed to have run 12:50.

About a third of the way into repetition number three, I realized that Bob, although a few strides in front of me, was no longer running faster than I was. I sensed the tables turning, and, sure enough, over the next three-quarters of a mile I slowly eased past him. By the end of the rep, which I completed in 12:12, Too Slow was far enough behind me that I no longer heard his footsteps. Glancing back, I saw him dashing down a grassy embankment toward a stand of trees—the nearest privacy. Poor Bob.

“Time?” Coach Ben asked, again holding out my bottle.

“I feel great and my Achilles is holding up!” I deflected.

Ben laughed despite himself.

Matt Fitzgerald after NAZ workout

When I reached Mile 7.5 and the start of my final repetition, my workout buddy was nowhere in sight, so I took off alone. I was cruising toward a 5:59 mile and really feeling my oats when Matt and Faubs flew past, leaving me behind at about the same rate a scampering child leaves behind a dropped mitten.

“I hate you guys!” I shouted at their backs.

Only in the last half mile of the workout did I begin to feel a touch of heaviness in the legs. But my breathing remained under control, my energy abundant. The phrase Lake Mary Magic popped into my head.

When I reached Coach Ben this time I stopped, having completed my morning’s work, save for the cool-down, for which I would await a two-pounds-lighter Bob Tusso.

“What was your last mile?” Ben asked.

“Five fifty,” I wheezed. Ben’s face froze.

“Is that even possible?” he asked.

“Apparently so,” I said.

Excerpted from  RUNNING THE DREAM: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age by Matt Fitzgerald. Published Pegasus Books. © Matt Fitzgerald. All rights reserved. Reprinted with Permission.

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: courtesy Matt Fitzgerald