WARMUP

I’m a 58-year-old masters runner who hasn’t raced in almost two-and-a-half years. As a masters runner, I’m a 5-time USA masters cross country runner of the year and hold multiple American and world age group records. But after the 2017 track season, work, coaching, and writing two books got in the way of training. I ran infrequently, gained 20 pounds, and increased my intake of coffee and pizza by roughly a gazillion percent.

Last May, I decided it was time to get fit again, take a shot at my age group’s American men’s 55–59 road 5K record (The road record is 15:54; I already have the track 5,000m record at 15:42.13). If you haven’t turned 50 yet, that probably sounds like a reasonable goal. If you’re over 50, you know it’s a crapshoot—that there’s zero guarantee that the legs I have now will resemble the legs I ran with two years ago, and that every run, heck, every time I roll over in bed, is an opportunity for a season-ending injury.

I’m still a long way from taking a shot at the record, but I targeted my high school’s 2-mile Alumni Cross Country Race on August 10 as the site of my racing return—my first race effort since spring, 2017. Getting to the start, fit enough to not embarrass myself, isn’t as simple as it used to be.

This, then, is a three-week log of the daily challenge of training as an old guy.

Pete Magill Start Line for Runs - the Rose Bowl
photo: Laura DiConti

SUNDAY – DAY 1

Workout: 10 miles, regular distance

I park adjacent the Rose Bowl. This is where I start most runs. To the north, the San Gabriel mountains rise above a line of palm and eucalyptus trees. The July sun is setting, but it’s still 91 degrees. After 9 hours in front of my computer, hunched like Rodin’s Thinker, I shuffle more than walk to a nearby bench. To tie my shoes, I need a bench, wall, or tall rock to prop my foot on. If a shoelace comes untied during a run, oh well.

I wear ASICS RoadHawks, one of three different training shoes in my rotation. I switch shoes every run to minimize the biomechanical shortcomings of any one brand and model. It’s eccentric. But I stay healthy.

My first mile is a scuttle. At two miles, I climb a steep hill. My stride shortens to about six inches. The next few miles are an equal mix of road and trail. Then a downhill glide back to the Rose Bowl basin. This is my usual distance run. My left hamstring tightens with a mile to go, so I slow to a jog. It doesn’t seem serious. Any run where I finish feeling that I’ll be able to run again the next day is a success.

MONDAY – DAY 2

Morning Workout: 5 easy miles, post-run rope-stretching & minimal core

Mornings are tough. I’m so stiff that putting on socks requires leaning against a wall and pinning my foot against the opposite thigh. I wear Mizuno WaveShadow 2s. It takes three miles to loosen up. Until then, my stride is so short I might as well have my shoelaces tied together. I finish with 15 minutes of rope stretching (for stiff calves and hammies), ankle mobility exercises (to help ward off the plantar fasciitis that plagued me for 3-½ years in my 40s), and limited core work.

Rope stretching
photo: Laura DiConti

Evening Workout: 8.5 miles, including 5 x 4-minute reps (90–95% VO2max), 3-minute slow jog recovery

I warm up in Saucony Kinvaras, then switch to New Balance Hanzos for my repetitions. I run my reps on a mix of road and trail, targeting 5K effort. The three-minute recovery is a very slow jog. I need full recovery to ensure I’ll recruit as many intermediate fast-twitch fibers as possible during each rep—the goal of the workout is to improve aerobic energy production in those fibers.

My right heel, where I had an Achilles insertion injury for six years, finally requiring nine months off at age 53, starts to ache. I’ve cut the stiff heel counters out of my training shoes to avoid aggravating the area, but I leave racing flats intact. Or did. The Hanzos get scheduled for immediate surgery. I time the reps with my watch, but I don’t monitor how far each rep takes me. The workout is about sustained effort, not pace. Still, I can tell I’m slow. After more than two months of training, I have no idea whether I can get “fast” again.

Heel counter running shoe surgery
photo: Laura DiConti

TUESDAY – DAY 3

Workout: 10 miles, regular distance, post-run bodyweight resistance training

My regular 10-miler. My nervous system is fried from yesterday’s reps. It’s as if I’m wearing magnetic boots and the ground is the ferrous hull of a spacecraft. Clomp … clomp … clomp. Afterward, I do bodyweight resistance work. Two sets each of air squats, step-downs, heel dips, single-leg deadlifts, and Nordic curls (the last two exercises to protect my hamstrings).

WEDNESDAY – DAY 4

Morning Workout: 5 easy miles, post-run rope-stretching & minimal core

At 7:30 AM, it’s already 80 degrees. I scuttle and clomp the five miles, still tired from Monday. Afterward, I drain a drinking fountain adjacent the Rose Bowl soccer field. To prevent hamstring spasms, I methodically bend and straighten my knees while hunched over to drink. A young couple eyes me strangely. I don’t blame them. I’m gulping water while simultaneously looking like I have to pee.

Evening Workout: 10 miles, regular distance

My regular distance run. I worked 8 hours in front of my computer today. I don’t have AC. It was over 100 degrees in my room. So the 85-degree temp during my run feels refreshing.

THURSDAY – DAY 5

Morning Workout: 5 easy miles, post-run rope-stretching & minimal core

A mile into my run, I hear, “Coming through!” A young woman streaks past me. I try to salvage my dignity by saying, “Have a good one.” But she’s already gone. A half-mile later, I see her walking, checking her phone. I convince myself she’s running hard repetitions. And go back to dreaming about fast races in the fall.

Pete Magill Hill Repeats
photo: Laura DiConti

Evening Workout: 9 miles, including 6 x 90+ second hill repeats, 5-minute walk/jog recovery

My three-mile warmup is slow. Really slow. Like I’m running through waist-high water. I switch into my Hanzos—now minus the right heel counter, excised with a box cutter—and do my first hill rep. The hill is challenging, the rep run at 3K effort. The second rep feels better. On my fourth rep, a woman walking down the hill says, “You’re killing it!” That fuels a strong final two reps.

The workout’s goal is to strengthen intermediate and fast-twitch fibers, and to improve aerobic energy production in intermediate fibers. With any luck, that will translate to a longer stride, improved cadence, and better endurance at faster speeds.

FRIDAY – DAY 6

Workout: 10 miles, regular distance

My legs are dead. I don’t wear a watch on distance runs, but I’m certain I’m the slowest I’ve been in weeks. I come up with two possible explanations for my chronic training fatigue:

  1. It’s the second week of a three-week cycle, which included a significant increase in volume, and I haven’t adapted yet.
  2. Too much coffee—harder training taxes the nervous system, and mine can no longer handle both the training and two giant coffees per day.

The good news is that my heel feels great. Removing the Hanzo’s heel counter did the trick.

SATURDAY – DAY 7

Workout: 14 miles, 12 miles at regular distance pace, 2 miles downhill tempo

My long run. I stick to road and sidewalk. I’ve come up with a third reason for my fatigue: too much trail running. Whether you run on the road or trail, you must generate enough force to get back into the air. Newton’s third law: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The force you put into the ground equals the force directed back at you, the push that gets you airborne. If the ground absorbs landing force, you must create more force with your muscles to compensate. Your nervous system recruits more muscle fibers to make that happen. That can lead to both nervous system and muscle fatigue. I include two miles of downhill tempo during the second half of the run—fast downhill running strengthens the quads like no other workout.

Week total: 86.5 miles

Pete Magill Trail Run
photo: Laura DiConti

SUNDAY – DAY 8

Workout: 10 miles, regular distance

Time to order a new pair of Saucony Kinvara 9s. It proves harder than expected. The Kinvara 10 is out, but it’s heavier with a sturdier heel and an expanded heel-toe offset. I don’t want any of that. It takes 30 minutes to locate a pair of size-13 version 9s on the Net. Not sure what I’ll do when the new pair wears out. Finding new shoes to replace obsolete models is a virtual game of Where’s Waldo—where Waldo wears a disguise and goes by a new name in each subsequent puzzle. I feel energetic on my run. A drop to one cup of coffee a day seems to have helped.

MONDAY – DAY 9

Morning Workout: 5 easy miles, post-run rope-stretching & minimal core

My first morning run not preceded by coffee. I feel good. Post-run, I add some AIS (active isolated stretching) to my routine. AIS works. But that can be a problem. If I increase my range of motion beyond my muscles’ capacity to power a lengthened stride, it can lead to injury.

Evening Workout: 7.5 miles, including 2 x 10-minute tempo reps, with a 3-minute slow jog recovery between reps

That didn’t take long. A few minutes into my first tempo rep, I feel niggling pain and tightness in both hamstrings. I back off to marathon effort, then finish the workout without further alarm bells. The alumni cross country race is a week from Saturday. If I can’t run faster than I did today, it’ll be an embarrassment. Oh, and note to self: No more AIS.

TUESDAY – DAY 10

Morning Workout: 5 easy miles, post-run rope-stretching & minimal core

I struggle after yesterday’s tempo. Also, my RoadHawks are reaching the end of their lifecycle. There’s only a thin remnant of sole between my toes and the road, and their “cush” has mostly turned to “smoosh.”

Evening Workout: 10 miles, regular distance, post-run bodyweight resistance training

Work-related hassles have me angry and frustrated as my run begins. Not good. Old guys need to focus while running. One misplaced step can lead straight back to the couch. I take a deep breath, clear my mind, and concentrate on running relaxed. It works. I’ll live to run again tomorrow.

Pete Magill Resistance Training - Nordic Curls
photo: Laura DiConti

WEDNESDAY – DAY 11

Workout: 12 miles, regular distance

My new Kinvaras arrive. I christen them with 12 miles of road and trail. There’s a pop to my stride that has been missing. Maybe it’s the shoes. My 12-miler feels better than yesterday’s 10.

THURSDAY – DAY 12

Morning Workout: 5 easy miles, post-run rope-stretching & minimal core

I’m doing my first-mile scuttle when a high school girls training group—including two girls who ran 4:45 and 4:46 for 1600 last spring—zips past me. I lower my head and look the other direction, the better to avoid detection. Thirty minutes later, warmed up and feeling better, I pass the same group. They’ve stopped. They’re having a powwow with Eric, their coach. Eric waves. The girls wave. I wave back. I’m certain they’re all very impressed with my fabulous stride.

Pete Magill Drill - Flat-Footed Marching 1
Photo: Laura Diconti

Evening Workout: 3-mile warmup, 9 x technique drills + fast strides, 4 miles of fast-repetition fartlek (30 seconds 1500/3K pace, 30 seconds walk, 30 seconds jog, repeat)

My friend Jay joins me for drills. He’s been in New York for a few weeks, doing a film—he’s an actor, writer, and director. “You’ve lost weight!” he says. I have. Ten pounds. I’m reminded of why I like training with Jay. We alternate 9 drills with 9 strides. Then I do 24 reps of 30-30-30 fartlek. I feel fast. It’s not just the new Kinvaras. My body is starting to come around.

FRIDAY – DAY 13

Workout: 10 miles, regular distance

My legs struggle again. Yesterday’s pop is gone. One fast stride forward, one slow run back.

SATURDAY – DAY 14

Workout: 14 miles, 13 miles at regular distance pace, 1 mile downhill tempo

I repeat last week’s road and sidewalk course. I feel much better than last Saturday. I’m definitely faster, and the run feels easier. Mile 8 is a long hill climb. It was murder last week. This week it energizes me. I add a mile of downhill tempo during the second half of the run.

Week total: 85.5 miles

Pete Magill Sidewalk Run
photo: Laura DiConti

SUNDAY – DAY 15

Workout: 10 miles, regular distance

Yesterday’s downhill tempo was a mistake. It was overkill. Pain and stiffness strike my left medial glute less than two miles into the run. It radiates down my leg. It’s as if my leg is asleep. My stride turns choppy and uneven. I assume it’s a muscle spasm, triggered by an overly fatigued nervous system. I stop to static stretch my abductors, a cure for spasms. At nine miles, my left foot screams in pain. I walk for 100 meters. I still think it’s nervous system related. I jog the rest of the way in. I’m happy to be done with this one.

MONDAY – DAY 16

Morning Workout: 5 easy miles, post-run rope-stretching & minimal core

There’s some soreness and tightness in my medial glute, but the extreme spasms from yesterday are gone. And my foot is fine. Bullet dodged.

Evening Workout: 8.5 miles, including 6 x 3-minute (90–95% VO2max), with a 3-minute slow jog recovery between reps

I run my repetitions on a familiar course in Lacy Park. I know the half-mile and mile marks. With the alumni race this coming Saturday, it’s time to see where I’m at. I check my watch at the half-mile mark of the first rep: 5:30 mile pace. Ouch. Slow. The next rep is the same.

I switch into a pair of Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4% race flats for the last four reps. They’re fresh out of the box. It’s like running on springs. Not figuratively. Literally. I alter my form to land correctly. Struggling on an incline, I lean forward, and the spring engages, catapulting me up the hill. Jogging between reps, I rock back on my heels. And drop 20 seconds-per-mile from my recovery pace. I resolve never to race in the shoes. If adapting your stride to footwear—to equipment—makes you faster, that’s unfair performance enhancement in my book. Since I won’t race in them, I won’t train in them. No reason to practice an altered stride. I put them back in my running bag, knowing I’ll never wear them again. And also knowing that someone will probably wear a pair and break my records in the near future.

TUESDAY – DAY 17

Workout: 10 miles, regular distance, post-run bodyweight resistance training

Man, am I sore! Both hamstrings. My left hip flexors. The tops of my calves. That’s what I get for running on springs. I hobble through the run. Then add side leg lifts to my post-run resistance training. I want to strengthen my abductors after Sunday’s scare.

Pete Magill Park Run
photo: Laura DiConti

WEDNESDAY – DAY 18

Morning Workout: 5 easy miles, post-run rope-stretching & minimal core

The RoadHawks are all “smoosh” this morning. Like running through soft sand. And I’m still sore. I drive home and order a new pair of New Balance trainers. I need a lighter, more responsive shoe.

Evening Workout: 11 miles, regular distance

I intend to run 12 miles. But my left hamstring tightens as soon as I start the run. I cut my pace, then decide to turn around early. Good thinking, as the hammy tightens even more over the final mile.

THURSDAY – DAY 19

Morning Workout: 5 easy miles

Both hamstrings are tight and sore today—Monday’s workout is the gift that keeps on giving. Still, I think it’s just muscle inflammation, not a more serious connective tissue injury. I skip post-run stretching. I wouldn’t pull apart the edges of a cut to help it heal. Muscle tissue deserves the same rational approach.

Evening Workout: 6 miles, including 1.5 miles of in ‘n’ outs

Took my old ASICS Piranhas, an extinct racing flat, out of storage. The soles are almost worn through, but I figure they’ve got one workout and one race left in them. I do six laps on the La Canada High School track, alternating 100-meter strides with 100 meters of jogging. I’m slow. But I’m still recovering from the hammy inflammation. I’m nervous about Saturday. But I’m confident in my ability to get the most out of my current fitness. I’m a pretty good racer.

FRIDAY – DAY 20

Workout: 3 easy miles, post-run rope-stretching & minimal core

I jog three easy miles as my pre-race workout. No strides. Gave up strides in my 40s, found they left my legs flat for the next day’s race. The hammy soreness is gone—just inflammation, after all. I do some easy stretching. Now I just need sleep.

Week total: 63.5 miles pre-race

Alumni XC Race Start
photo: Tom Reed

SATURDAY – DAY 21

Race Day: 5.5 miles, including 2-mile XC race

After quick hugs and handshakes with alumni and current LCHS cross country runners, it’s time to toe the start line. At the call of “Go!” I jet to the front, immediately breaking one of the fundamental rules of correct racing: No sprinting off the start line. Yep, it’s been two-plus years since my last race all right!

By 400 meters, I’ve corrected, am running in 4th place. At 600 meters, four Rain Bird sprinklers target us directly, soaking us from head to shoes. At the mile mark, I’m holding in fifth place, behind three alumni runners and a non-LCHS high school kid (the LCHS coach’s son, running for fun).

Pete Magill & Nic Diconti
photo: Tom Reed

With a half mile to go, I glance over my shoulder. Two LCHS kids are closing. One ran 52 seconds for 400 meters last track season. I risk a surge. If I can hold a gap going into the final 400 meters, the kids will give up on me and focus on each other—team pecking order, you know. I hold the gap. And the kids respond as high school kids do. They let me go. I pass the third alumni runner.

Suddenly, I can see the finish line. And I realize: I did it! Not only can I still race, but my pace is faster than Monday’s reps (under 5:30s). I accelerate into my kick. And cross the line in 4th place. Exceeding my expectations.

Our alumni squad defeats the current high school varsity team. Today wasn’t fast. But it was exactly the feedback I needed: I can still run; training still sticks to my bones; and that 5K road record is doable.

Unless, of course, I roll over in bed too quickly tonight and sprain my spine.

Pete Magill is the author of Fast 5K: 25 Crucial Keys and 4 Training Plans and SpeedRunner: 4 Weeks to Your Fastest Leg Speed in Any Sport available from VeloPress.