Running Coach learns to Walk
Eugene running coach Joe Henderson approached his 75th birthday this month with what seemed like a perfect plan: he'd do the Newport Marathon on June 3 and celebrate the achievement on his birthdate the following day.
His goal was to walk the marathon, traveling the 26.2 mile route within the event’s seven-hour time limit. It would be his first all-walk marathon and another step in a long transition from runner to walker.
But you know what they say about plans.
In late April, a urinary blockage raised fears of a prostate cancer recurrence ten years after his diagnosis and treatment at age 65. Tests determined the issue was not cancer but a blockage significant enough to sideline Henderson from distance training.
A marathon was out, but Henderson wasn’t defeated. A man who tends to look on the bright side saw opportunity instead of obstruction. He’d do the half marathon instead and bag a new PR for his record book – a personal record for walking 13.1 miles. His first and best time in the event.
“It opened a new possibility,” Henderson said when we met for coffee a few days after the event. “I had never purely walked a race before. I knew I’d get a PR.”
One record feeds an appetite for more. Henderson now hopes to bag two more walking PRs this summer—one in the Prost8K run-walk hosted June 17 by Oregon Urology Center in Eugene and a second in the July 4th Butte to Butte.
“Plans are one thing,” he says, “but at this age, it’s good to have back-up plans. Things intervene—age limits, injuries. If the big plan isn’t working out, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other plans that can be just as satisfying.”
Running to Recognition in High School
A runner who set track records during high school in Iowa, went to college on an athletic scholarship and found his first post-college job on the sports desk of the Des Moines (Iowa) Dispatch, Henderson seems masterful at finding open doors at what appears to be a deadend.
In 1981, he was writing a monthly column for Runners’ World magazine when Nike recruited him to work for the short-lived Running magazine based in Eugene. When that magazine folded two years later Henderson remained in Eugene and resumed the Runners’ World column that ran a total of 33 years.
Meanwhile he ran, completing 50 marathons and scores of shorter races. He produced more than two dozen books on fitness and running. He championed the sport as a keynote speaker at expos across the country. And he began to feel the physical changes that come with age.
“I knew as early as my 50s that pure running wasn’t sustainable,” he says. “I was getting injuries and taking longer to recover.”
About that time, early legends of fitness running began recommending that aging athletes drop to runs three days a week to allow for recovery between workouts. That didn’t work for Henderson who has a 60-year pattern of early morning runs followed by journaling. He opted for the counsel of coaches who advocated short walk breaks during runs to sustain daily workouts.
“I was never embarrassed,” he says. “I never looked down on walkers. Walking is different from running but no one can call it easy. It has added decades to my active life. I’m still putting in the miles.” These days, those miles add up to the distance of about a marathon each week with one long workout and shorter daily outings of walks with brief run breaks.
Cancer changes the Race and Pace
This month Henderson concluded the marathon training class he has taught for University of Oregon students since 2004, limiting his local coaching role to weekly workouts with Joe’s Team of marathon and half marathon runners sponsored by Eugene Running Company.
The relationships fostered in those teaching roles sustained Henderson as he emerged in 2008 from dark months of cancer treatment, dealing with lower energy, slower running pace and weight gain.
“Things changed dramatically,” he says. “It changed my view of who I am and my mortality. It was a big loss not to have the energy I had for most of my life. I am still coming to terms with that.”
In 2009 Henderson was out of treatment but not out of shock when he agreed to be master of ceremonies at Eugene's first Prost8K run created to raise awareness and support for prostate cancer. He’s there again this year, marking the 10th anniversary of the event.
That same year he joined a team to run-walk segments of the 24-hour Relay for Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. In 2012, his fourth year at the Relay, an Achilles injury ruled out running. He walked his four-hour segment.
“That was the first long walk I took,” he says. “That got me thinking about walking a marathon. I’d done two-thirds of a marathon at the Relay. Might as well do a marathon next.”
The goal presented a fresh challenge. He had to learn to walk—to move faster and more efficiently. With new techniques, he brought his walking pace down from 20 minutes a mile to 16. In his last marathon prior to cancer, Henderson had followed a sequence of five minutes running, one minute walking. In his first marathon after cancer, he reversed the pattern to make walking the primary sport.
That race came in the spring of 2014 when he drove in Yakima, WA for the Canyon River Marathon and found three students from his UO marathon class waiting to lend encouragement. They started the race one hour after their 70-year-old coach and ran until they caught him at mile 22. There, the students slowed to a walk, providing physical and emotional support through the final 4.2 miles of the route.
It happened again two weeks ago when students, including one of the 2014 runners, turned up to see Henderson through his all-walk half marathon in Newport.
“I’ve gotten over having my emotions tied up with distances and times,” he says. “I have made my peace with knowing that a half marathon now takes me longer than a full marathon once did. I consider myself fortunate to be able to do all I do at this age.
"I don’t think everyone should be a walker, but I do say to runners who pooh-pooh this, wait for 10 or 20 years. Wait until you are 75.”
Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.