WHERE THERE’S A WILL………………………..

06.30.2017
Captured live while running through Forerunners Cheer Zone (Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon)

Captured live while running through Forerunners Cheer Zone (Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon)

This post began last year when friend and fellow Forerunners group leader, Walter Downey ran the Berlin Marathon and we discussed a post on his experience. Walter ran with a group of friends and celebrated his FOURTH Marathon Majors event (New York, Chicago, Boston and Berlin), which was also a part of the story.

Well, as things go these days, and even though we got off to a decent start, the project got side-tracked.

Berlin Marathon (2016) Finisher Medal

Berlin Marathon (2016) Finisher Medal

As it turns out, that was a good thing because I think this post is going to be even better. While Berlin was a fabulous experience, by Walter’s own account, it was far from his best marathon. Perhaps it was that, or maybe it was just the ‘final straw’, but whatever, it got Walter onto a new course (sorry about the running pun).

I asked him about just what he was doing to bring about all this success, because Walter is definitely a ‘seasoned athlete’ having turned 56 the day of the Eugene Marathon, where he just came Second in his age group and set a new PB and not one of those age-graded PB’s that I am so fond of these days. Nope, this was an asterisk-free, honest to Steve Prefontaine (it was Eugene, and we did finish on Hayward Field) Personal Best!

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The title of this piece isn’t “Walter Downey gets a PB at age 56” it is “Where There’s a Will……….”.

As mentioned above, I asked what he was doing and it kind of boiled down to two fairly simple ideas. 1) he is running more and with more purpose, and 2) he is eating better. I guess there is one more thing that is really the essence of the title, he decided to dedicate himself to getting this done.

Fall Classic Half. Real heroes of the day - VOLUNTEERS!

Fall Classic Half. Real heroes of the day – VOLUNTEERS!

Walter has always been a pretty decent runner, but like most of us who can say that (I could at one point), being pretty decent doesn’t get you any hardware other than that Finisher Medal. Walter is on a streak following Berlin. It began with a local race in Vancouver, the Fall Classic Half Marathon (November). The ‘new Walter’ ran pretty well and came Third (M50-59) with a time of 1:36 – nicely done on a day that wasn’t. I ran that day, pacing the 2:30 finish group. It was very wet and let’s just say the best part of the race on that day was being finished!

To those of us who have known Walter for a while, he has clearly shed a few pounds (or Kilograms, if you prefer), some 25 of them since January.

Celebrating the Age Group Win at Phoenix

Celebrating the Age Group Win at Phoenix

It seemed that every Saturday, as we headed out for our prescribed clinic training distance, Walter would add on an extra 5K or sometimes more. As we made our way through one of the ugliest winters Vancouver has seen in some time, Walter was going longer and getting faster, it seemed (he also leads a group at the Wednesday night speed clinic). This has added up to a 2017 total distance run of over 1500km to date, sometimes running twice in a day .

I suppose the First Half Half Marathon in February would have offered a bit of insight into his progress, but for the first time since it began, the First Half was cancelled due to weather. (Did I mention the ugly winter we just had?) Not to worry, the Phoenix Pride Run Half Marathon in March was as good a place as any for an age group win (First M50-59) and a very tidy time of 1:31.

Forerunners at the Eugene Marathon (2016) - pre-race at Mazzi's

Forerunners at the Eugene Marathon (2016) – pre-race at Mazzi’s

Next race up was the Eugene Marathon. It is becoming a ‘go to race’ for a lot of Forerunners folk and I think there were some 40 or so of us, including significant others, that actually went down to Oregon to run the half or full marathon. The day could not have been much better. It bordered on spectacular. I wish I could say the same about my own run, but I think I psyched myself out on that one (the Half) before I even started. Anyway, I was lounging around with other Forerunners folks, on the grass in the post-race celebration area, when Walter appeared after finishing his marathon and just ‘floated’ right by all of us, looking like he could easily go another 10K! I mentioned this to our coach and Olympic marathoner (1996), Carey Nelson. His response was “the good races never hurt!”  Guess he knows whereof he speaks. Walter was celebrating his 56th birthday that day and had just set an all-time PB (3:14:02), come Second M55-59 and recorded a negative split while doing it (about as common as spotting unicorns).

Walter at the North Olympic Discovery Half Marathon

Walter at the North Olympic Discovery Half Marathon

After Eugene, came North Olympic Discovery Trail Half Marathon where he nailed another First in his age group and a time of 1:32:18, definitely not too shabby for a trail race, oh and good for 4th place OA (3rd OA male).

Which all brings us to the Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon held June 25 in very warm conditions for Vancouver. Everyone, including race winners, turned in times well off race records and PBs, and not surprisingly. So, another Second in Age Group and a time of 1:32:25.

OK – so much for the impressive statistics. What is of importance here to the ‘seasoned’ running community is how some guy who is now technically a senior (in the eyes of some organizations that offer discounts on stuff), is doing such amazing things. (I know! I was shocked when offered a senior’s discount on my insurance because I was 55!)

Walter’s efforts and performances are admirable for anyone of any age. So what happened? I mean, that is what we all want to know now that you’ve got a picture of Walter’s recent running record.

 I guess it is all summed up in the title: “Where there’s a will…………”

I have to say that Walter does not look at this as being heroic in any way (which is not to say he isn’t thrilled to bits). He just decided he wanted or needed to do this and then he did. I am not sure if the right term is fortunate or not, but I’m going to use it because going too hard CAN produce an injury. In fact, Walter was injured much of last summer, although not from running. It was a calf injury resulting from playing softball. Doesn’t matter how it happened, it really put running on the side for quite a time and probably impacted his time in Berlin (not that 3:44 is an awful time).

What it clearly does tell us is that we can make major changes to how we are going about things. We talked quite a bit after the Scotia Half and I learned that while there have been some major adjustments to diet in particular, it is also not obsessive, nor highly prescriptive. Walter isn’t eating tofu for every meal or magic berries. Mostly he is eating sensibly with some attention to certain types of food and the amounts consumed. The odd slip or intentional indulgence does not spell doom or disaster because everything in general is headed the right way. I was a little taken-aback when he said beer had been removed from the menu. He quickly assured me he hasn’t gone ‘dry’, just more or less eliminated beer. [Ed. Note: This thing about beer is being taken under advisement.]

Hayward Field, Eugene OR. Finishing the Eugene Marathon (2017) Photo courtesy of Michael Carson.

Hayward Field, Eugene OR. Finishing the Eugene Marathon (2017) Photo courtesy of Michael Carson.

Similarly, when you train for an event like a marathon, unless your only goal is crossing the finish line, there is work to be done. A lot of work! Getting the distance in is pretty obvious, but effective training also requires some quality in the form of speed work, hills and tempo runs. As much as the physical matter of being able to run up a hill is important, so is the mental assurance that you CAN run up it. When you are actually racing against something other than the clock, and then too, being able to pick up the pace is important. You do not master these things by simply running a long way at a modest pace (LSD). Again, it appears that Walter seized on that truth and went to work making it happen. He told me during our little ‘heart to heart’ that he thinks he will keep his weekly long run at 25K as a general matter, unless he is targeting another marathon. I think we all have some kind of ‘minimum’ training distance we try to hold even when we aren’t specifically preparing for an event. 25K sounds like a good solid goal for someone concentrating on marathon and half marathon racing. 

With regards to Walter’s new focus, the results are clear. Oh yes, one more thing: He is having FUN!

So, congratulations to Walter on his stellar achievements, and thanks for the inspiration to the rest of us. Maybe this little story will be what it takes for a few others to make the same personal resolve that they need to dig just a little deeper and ‘make it happen’!  Because, you know, Where There’s a Will……………….

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