On some accounts it’s easy for me to relate to Bill Atkins. Like me, he was small in high school, his first love was another sport, and he thought it’d be cool to have a letterman’s jacket. Then there are things I can't relate to; 106 miles in a week within his 2nd year of running, 4:13 mile speed, a 10-year layoff, etc. After his layoff, the 47-year-old Hastings resident is back to tearing up the roads. Ideally, we’d all like to run well throughout the entire season. However, as Bill’s 2008 season shows, that’s not always the case. Sometimes even the best laid plans lead to burnout before the season's end.
How did you first get involved with running – did you run in high school and/or college?
My first organized “running” experience was cross country in 7th grade at the urging of my basketball coach Bruce Johnson who happened to be the cross country coach at Anoka High school. I don’t remember training very much but we ran barefoot on the grass at the meets - I fell in love with the individual aspect of the sport.
I really didn’t start running again until I was a junior in high school. I loved football so much I kept playing even though I was small (5’5” 105 lbs) as a sophomore. A broken hand gave me time on the sidelines to realistically see that I was too small to compete at the high school level. I went out for cross country my junior year after meeting a kid in my gym class who had lettered as a sophomore. I remember thinking it would be cool to have a letterman’s jacket. The next fall I was introduced to high mileage. Our coach (Doug Beck) was a big believer in the Lydiard system and he had team awards for running the most miles per week. By the third week of the season I ran 106 miles to edge out my buddy for the weekly award. We were tired all the time but logging those miles made me stronger and I went from being seventh man on the team to number one by the end of the year. I still have never run more miles in a week. I never made it to the state meet, but was close my senior year where I missed in cross country, cross country skiing and track by one place! I ran for the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse for two cross country seasons then later at St. Cloud State for one cross country and one track season.
In general, what is your training philosophy and how has it changed over time? As a teacher, how does having the summers off affect your training?
I’ve always believed in putting in the miles. When I was running my best, I was logging around 80-90 a week which I could only maintain for small chunks of time—maybe two or three months. I’ve never been able to go year after year or even month after month doing high mileage. Something in my makeup doesn’t allow it. I get bored or have doubts about what I’m doing and switch to something else. It is probably more mental than physical. Now I shoot for the “magical” 70-mile barrier if I can. I’ve always wondered what I could have done if I would put together a year of 100 mile weeks...
As a teacher, one might think having extra time in the summer would be ideal for putting in a ton of miles. I do run but I prefer the cooler fall and winter weather. I especially love winter running. There’s nothing like doing a long run with the hard packed snow crunching beneath your feet. Maybe it’s the feeling that not too many people would be out there running in weather like that. I’d rather run in 10 degrees below zero than 85 degrees and humid any day. I also despise the treadmill. I own one out of necessity but its pure torture for me… Give me a woodchip or grass trail any day.
Now that 2008 in nearly over, what do you see when you reflect on the year?
I think I raced too much and had a long season that started at the Meet of Miles in January and ran through the Twin Cities 10-Mile. I got caught up in the MDRA Grand Prix and was actually leading for a while but crashed toward the end. My times did improve from the year before and I’m getting closer to the leaders in my age group so I am making progress. I need to keep shedding weight. I was racing at about 162 lbs and that’s too heavy for a guy who was 105 lbs in high school! I won’t be able to compete with the Pat Billigs, Pete Kesslers and Dan Carlsons until I drop another 10 or 15 pounds. I have to be patient and remember that 4 years ago I weighed 206 lbs!
You mentioned being a little burnt out by the time your key race, TC-10, rolled around. Can you point to anything in your training and/or racing that may have caused that?
Again, I over did it. Too many long races for me. I think I ran three half marathons, a marathon and a 25K. My training tailed off over the summer and I wasn’t as consistent with my mileage as I would have liked to be. For some reason I never got the speed work/mileage thing balanced out. I remember running the Rochester Half Marathon and hitting the mile mark and was thinking, “Holy crap I can’t go any faster,” yet I was able to hold that pace throughout the race. I was sure I would have a few races where the early pace felt easy but I never did. It felt like every race I was “balls to the wall” red-lining right from the gun. Every race I was just hanging on. So I’m thinking that my speed work needs to be tinkered with next year.
Runner of the Year rankings show you moving up from 10th in 2007 to 8th in 2008 for your age-group. Does ROY ranking help motivate you or is it more something you look at after the fact?
I do look at that kind of stuff and it does help motivate me to a point. I know what I need to do to be competitive again and the guys ahead of me will hopefully see a slimmer version of me next year… and my shadow off their right shoulder.
What are your goals for 2009?
I want to keep making gains on the leaders in my age group and to be a factor in races not just a spectator. I have signed up for the Boston Marathon and that is my short-term focus. Since high school I’ve always wanted to run Boston, so we will see what a winter of marathon training will do for the rest of 2009. I will be more selective in my races, that’s for sure.
What do you consider your strengths?
I believe I’m pretty economical in terms of running form. I don’t bob up and down or back and forth much. I think I’ve always been able to lay it on the line. When the time comes in a race to back off or puke, I normally pick puke and hope I can keep it down. I don’t know maybe that’s a weakness too.
Being able to lay out a plan and stick to it. I get antsy and think, “Hey maybe I should try this or that?” I struggle with commitment I guess. Heat, humidity, high dew points, certain foods and wine are also nemesis of mine.
What are your PRs?
1:07:58 half marathon
1:18:55 half marathon
What is your fondest running memory?
I have many fond memories, from the lifelong friends I’ve made and people I have met at races, to the days when everything was clicking and I felt like this is what I was born to do. I remember a couple races that stand out: The first one was the Statehood Days Ten Mile in Lincoln, Nebraska. It was really windy on the way “out” on an out-and-back course and at the turnaround I happened to be in the lead pack. It felt like we were walking. I knew I needed to be in a good position when we turned back with the wind so I moved up and turned around the cone and found myself in the lead. I figured what the hell and stepped on the gas. The sixth mile was 4:35 and that was the end of me in the lead pack! I think I hung on for sixth or seventh place in 51 minutes. I liked the feeling that even if for only a moment I was dictating the pace surrounded by runners that were better than me. The second one was St. Patrick’s Day five mile (now the Human Race) where I ran 24:01. Coming down the last straightaway and seeing the clock and trying to sneak in under twenty four minutes, leaning at the line thinking that I might have, then finding out I actually ran 24:00.02 and then later learning that they round up to the next second. Damn!! That was fun!
If you could run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
I used to really enjoy being a part of a post collegiate team. I was around when Club Sota first started and then Racer’s Edge and now with Run-and-Fun. I am looking forward to running more team workouts like we did in the past and getting to know my teammates. As far as individuals, growing up in Anoka I always heard stories of Mark Nenow and Steve Hoag. I have run with Mark a couple times but I never really got to know him or find out what made him tick. I’ve never met or ran with Steve but I went to Jr. High with his sister Barb who was actually a very good runner. She was the third man (girl) on my 7th grade boy’s team.
Finally, what do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started running?
I wish I would have appreciated how difficult it is to get back to a respectable level after taking ten years off from running. Not just losing weight but the whole gambit of racing and pushing myself and making it hurt. It’s a journey that continues.