Lessons Learned: What A Stud Taught A Pud

I consider myself a very lucky guy. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to run with some of the world’s greatest runners from Olympic gold medalist icons like Herb Elliott and Rosa Mota to American heroes such as Bill Rodgers, Meb Keflezighi, Steve Scott and Alberto Salazar. I’ve learned something from every one of them. But there’s one great runner who I ran with many years ago who has always stood out for me. That man is Rob de Castella.

If you’re a relative newcomer to running, that name might not mean much to you. But de Castella—Deek–is an Aussie, who at one point in the early ‘80s, was the top marathoner in the world. He won such major marathons as Fukuoka, Rotterdam, the Commonwealth Games, World Champs and Boston during his reign and actually set the world record for the marathon (2:08:18) in 1981. But his record wasn’t widely recognized because Alberto Salazar ran five seconds faster at New York City that fall on a course which was later found to be short.

No worries. Not much bothered Deek which is just one of the many reasons I had such admiration for him. He embodied the Australian sporting ideal which basically was if you start a race, there are no excuses. None. You start, you finish and accept the result for what it is, not for what it might have been.

A running lifetime ago, I met de Castella when he was still a virtual unknown outside of Australia. Although he’s originally from Melbourne, when I first met him he was living in Perth in Western Australia where, at the time, I happened to be working. Not knowing anybody in town, I gravitated to the local track and soon hooked up with Deek and his training mates, who met for Thursday evening speed work.

It was awesome. There would be dozens of runners of various abilities all over the track with several national-class guys blowing by and lapping them. The only downer was the swarms of mosquitoes and flies. Western Aussies are used to running with the bugs and perfected a way to keep them from getting sucked in with every inhalation. But for a sot like me, I would choke on bugs on every lap to the great amusement of the Aussie runners. The only thing left to do after a workout was to retreat to a nearby pub where we blew the froth off a few Swan lagers and washed the bugs down. Bugs aside, life was good in Western Australia.

Over the years, I ran with de Castella several times, went to his training sessions (both in Australia and his U.S. home of Boulder) and covered some of his greatest races. Along the way, I soaked up all I could from the master marathoner and learned plenty of lessons—that are applicable to recreational runners like you and me.

Here are a few I gleaned that might help:

1. Train, don’t strain. This was Deek’s guiding training philosophy. His workout schedule was deceptively relaxed and laid back in comparison to the intensity of most elite (and pud) marathoners of his time. De Castella never ran workouts that defeated him or left him so wasted he couldn’t recover in time for the next day’s. But some of his workouts were so easy for a runner of his caliber that there were three-hour marathoners training with him who did more than he did on easy days. In fact, that would be me.

2. Consistency is the key. From the time de Castella began running in high school until he retired from competitive running in 1993, he had the same coach (Pat Clohessy) who developed a training system that never really changed. Although he certainly ran higher mileage as a world-class marathoner than he did in high school, de Castella followed the same basic schedule for years. That way, Deek never had any indecision about what workout to do; he knew if it was Wednesday, he would do a medium long run of about 18 miles. If it was Tuesday, that meant hills. Saturday was fartlek. His long run was always on Sunday. He almost never deviated from this schedule in 15 years of world-class running.

3. Relaxation is the king. Running relaxed was his coach’s fundamental principle. Most coaches preach relaxation, but de Castella had it ingrained in his “no worries mate” psyche. De Castella also practiced running relaxed with consistent, balanced training patterns as well as training and racing goals that were reasonable and attainable. Almost all of his easy runs were on dirt trails that were far away from the mental strains of traffic and pollution. (There was even a dirt, logging road named for him in Canberra—Deek Drive—where he used to live. I have photos)

4. Easy runs should be really easy. I have a clear memory of going on an easy run with Deek one morning in Canberra and he was running so slowly, it was even leisurely for me. I assumed he was slowing down for my sake. When I told him he didn’t have to run 8:30-minute pace just for me, de Castella bristled, “I’m not running slow for you. I’m running easy for me.” When his schedule called for an easy morning run, no world-class runner ever ran slower.

5. Group training. Deek almost never ran by himself. He had a pack of mates that ran practically every workout with him. This was by design. He believed strongly in the positive influence of a peer group. Even though he was the Alpha Male, de Castella’s belief was the power of the group motivates, strengthens and carries a runner to greater heights. And it was more fun to run with friends than slog the miles by yourself.

6. Training adaptation must be gradual. As de Castella progressed into one of the best runners in the world, his training load also grew. The long runs became a little longer, the fartlek efforts were tougher, but he only upped the volume and quality slightly over a four-year period. Instead of jumping up his training, he would simply add a mile or two a week and give himself a full year to adapt to the increased training. Once Deek found his optimum training level, he stuck with it and didn’t try to push it to unimaginable heights. That’s a major reason why he was never injured.

7. Keep speed workouts simple. The most important aspect to speed training isn’t what you do; it’s simply doing it. Deek’s speed workout was incredibly basic. Week in, week out, he would go to the track on Thursday night and run six or eight quarters in 62-64 seconds. But that was it. Such low volume and such short repeats were unheard of for a marathoner of his caliber. Mixing speed drills and/or spending long workouts on the track didn’t matter to him because he felt his speed routine was just honing the natural speed he had.

8. Do a long run every week. This was inviolable. Every Sunday meant a long run, regardless of whether de Castella was getting ready for a marathon or not. The distance didn’t matter as much as the time spent running did. Every week, he did a long run of at least 2-2 1/2 hours year ’round which in the Australian summer is difficult (kind of like Austin). Deek also believed in at least one overdistance run before a marathon. Six or seven weeks out from a marathon, de Castella would go as long as three hours which for him was close to 30 miles. His belief was a 30-mile run made the 26.2 race effort that much more manageable.

Finally, there was one more pearl of wisdom from Deek about marathoning that I’ve never forgotten. You might want to print and tape to your frig:

“In a marathon, if you feel bad at 10 miles, you’re in trouble. If you feel bad at 20 miles, you’re normal. If you don’t feel bad at 26 miles, you’re abnormal.”

Words to run by.