Richard Benyo: Articles and Columns

Runner’s World

January, 1979

Return to Running

Richard Benyo turned 31 years old on April 20, 1977; on that date, when he stepped on the bathroom scale, he tipped it at 207 pounds. That moment, augmented by the death of a friend from high school the previous November from "natural causes," caused Benyo to embark on a weight-loss program. On June 13, 1977 he dropped below 200 pounds and began his return to running for reasons of health and fitness. Running soon became a goal in itself; so much so that during 1978 Benyo completed eight marathons and a 50-mile cross-country race and is now below 160 pounds soaking wet with honest perspiration at the end of a day’s training run. In these excerpts from the book chronicling his Return to Running, which he describes more as a "book of pitfalls to avoid on the return road," he examines aspirations and goals, starting a running program, and setting new goals.


I know it sounds better reading "Goals and Aspirations" and that’s how Rotary Clubs and such use the terms, but let’s face it, you need the aspirations before you can set the goals.

As someone who hasn’t run since childhood or as someone who hasn’t run since the days of high school or college, your aspirations in life have altered considerably since then. There are new priorities in your life. Different things are important. You’ve obviously at least halfway decided that your health and well-being are of importance to you at this juncture, and you want to recapture some of your youthful energy and exuberance before it vanishes all together. You want to lose a few pounds or tighten up the muscles and maybe, if something else beneficial comes along with the process, that’ll be just fine.

It might be a good time to examine what other aspirations are involved with your decision to make this rather radical move into weight control and running. Are you approaching this as a flippant thing or as a serious project? Do you already have visions of the person you figure you’ll be when you come out the other end at a furious pace, or are you just going to kind of play it by ear and see what happens with each step?

The caution here is that you should, by this point in your life, know yourself better than anyone else knows you. You should know the directions your aspirations take, and you should know how easy or difficult it is to make a grab for the realization of those aspirations. The best way to approach the entire thing is to allow flexibility in your aspirations, because some strange things happen to people.

Actually sit down and, with a piece of fresh paper in front of you, write down what you want out of this whole thing. Make some short-term goals and maybe some long-term goals. Don’t be afraid to put time limits on the short-term goals, but keep the long-term goals open-ended. For instance, in June of 1977 when I started watching my weight closely and getting back into running, I set the short-term goal of losing two pounds per week for the first five weeks and, at the end of those five weeks, running better than three miles without being exhausted.

My long-term goals were eventually to reach, at a reasonable time in the future, a base weight of 160 pounds, while being able to run 18 miles on a Saturday or Sunday morning in under two hours. (I don’t think that at 31 I'm going to match the 18-miles in 100 minutes that I was capable of when I was 19 years old…yet who knows?) On the morning this is being written, Nov. 1, 1977, I'm down to 181 pounds and I ran 11 ? miles in one hour, 33 minutes on Sunday, on top of another 5.7 miles to my log last night. I'll probably do 7-10 miles tonight. But I'm a long way from doing 18 miles in two hours. It will, perhaps by the time this is finished on January 30, 1978, be a reality. If not, it still qualifies as a goal, and whether it happens on March 20 or July 4 of next year, it makes little difference. The fact will be that it was a goal on a long-term basis that was realized.

If you've never run as an adult, keep the goals reasonable. If you have run before in some organized team structure, evaluate yourself since you stopped and figure out how long it will take you to come back. Obviously, if you haven't put on much weight, you don't want to set a goal of losing two pounds per week for five weeks; you'll end up walking through doors without opening them.

Get yourself a loose-leaf binder and lots of loose-leaf paper to keep a diary and a running log. Do this for several reasons: Initially, it will give you a place to put down in writing what you want to accomplish, what your aspirations and goals are. It'll also record the day you started all this, sort of the Day One for your new self. If you're shy about starting such things, I'll start it for you.

Today I decided to lose weight and take up running, to become more fit than the average person and to live longer, to get to know myself, and to record my thoughts and feelings and impressions for later reference.

You'll eventually find yourself coming home after a run, eager to jot down your impressions and your performance. You'll feel great pride when you log your current weight. And, when you get a little discouraged, all it takes to pick you up is a peep into the early pages of the diary/log to realize just how damned far you've come.

Okay, now that you've got your resolution screwed tight and ready to work for you and your diary/log is primed, let's get you out the door and into training.


Earlier, we talked about the advisability of setting goals in your running program, of putting down on paper what you're striving for and then making great efforts to realize those goals. Before running your first few days and gaining a knowledge of exactly what kind of shape you were in, your goals might have been different than they are after an honest evaluation of your strengths and weaknesses as they've quickly brought themselves to the surface by some honest pavement-pounding.

Within a few days of starting to run, you should have an idea of how you’ll fit into the grand plan of running.

You've learned whether you're a morning, noon, or evening runner; whether you need some type of stretching exercises to loosen you up before you run or whether the act of running itself provides its own loosening up. You’ve found that there are realistic limits to what you can do at this point. You’ve probably also found that there are other people out on the streets and highways doing the same thing you are, and that you are not really an oddball or a nut, or a candidate for the bug-bin. You've kept your feelings and thoughts and performances - or failures - in your journal and maybe, after your first week, it's time to sit down with your scribblings and put them into some kind of perspective.

There are as many different kinds of running as there are runners. Each runner looks for something individual in running - and usually finds it. Some "morning" runners are content to have the heat of their bodies building a shield around them in the pre-dawn chilliness, running at a steady pace down suburban streets with names like Orchard Avenue or Picadilly Lane or Apple Blossom Drive, waiting for that one special moment in the day's millions of moments when the sun squeezes itself above the horizon and brings day to night.

Other runners are constantly in quest of a run that will better their PR (personal record) for a certain distance, while others work toward running a little bit farther on each week's long run, even if it’s merely a tenth-mile, hoping to reach numbers like 18 miles, 21 miles, that will, afterward, astound them and cast them momentarily speechless at their accomplishment. Other runners run to become fast enough and good enough to run faster and better than other runners.

Some runners run to lose weight or to build muscle tone or to get fresh air or to develop a feeling that they are not suffocating in daily routine that has no place for the extraordinary.

One runner I know, a very dedicated runner who runs at least an hour every day, spent an entire year training for one race, a 50-miler, while the man that won the race runs 50 miles or more every Sunday so that the actual races are little more than normal training sessions for him.

Some runners work toward being able to run around the block without being winded, while others run across the country in less than two months. Some runners run alone, while others run to find a way to socialize with other people who are like them. Some runners train on hills, while others train on tracks. Some train on roads, while others train on sidewalks.

And despite the incredible number of runners in America today, there are no two alike, even if they train at the same time, over the same distances, with each other - even if they are Siamese twins. Because they each want something slightly different from running, whether it be something aesthetic, something spiritual, some type of psychological therapy, weight reduction, an almost-certain preventive against heart failure, or an excuse to get out of the house and away from the responsibilities that are associated with it.

Do not be surprised or stupefied or disappointed if your goals and your view of running changes the more you run. They can change from day to day; may well change from week to week; should change with each new month, and must change each year. Running should never be allowed to become a stagnant, purely regimented thing. That’s one of the reasons a journal is kept - so that a runner can periodically go back over his record of where he’s been in order to map out some new routes for where he's going.

Bruce Dern, the rather accomplished actor, began his running career by running 1320s around a city block, because that's where his high school ran their 1320s. He progressed to regular quarter-mile tracks where he concentrated on the 880 as an event. Out of school, he began doing ultra-distance events - marathons, ultramarathons, the 72-mile run around Lake Tahoe. Now, he's back to doing training that will make him competitive in seniors’ track in the 880. His running career has ranged from runs that take 60 seconds to runs that take nearly 12 hours. A runner must be flexible enough to rearrange his running to fit the need and the desires of the moment. Running can be just as flexible as the runner - even moreso.

Don’t be afraid to set some new goals at this point.

If you've got a course set out that you can run every day, and if you’re happy covering the same territory, and if you want to fool with a stopwatch because you like numbers and because numbers are very finite things that you can jot down in your journal every day go right ahead. I personally don’t think it's the kind of running I'd like to do daily, but some people love to skim off a second or two on their two-mile runs through the neighborhood every day. The problem arrives on the day they are slower than they were the day before or when they lower the time to the point where it's just plain impossible to get it down any further. What’s the next step for them then?

Joe Henderson, for nearly eight years the editor of Runner's World and the author of numerous books on running, feels it's best to go in the opposite direction. He feels it’s to the runner's advantage to use the clock rather than a stopwatch. He urges runners to set goals of half-hours and hours of running, rather than to worry about distances and seconds. He feels that the pace is of little importance, and that the time spent running is all-important.

I guess I fall somewhere between the extremes. I like to play some numbers (because it acts, at least for me, as a motivating factor), but I don't like to become a prisoner of numbers and schedules. I early-on established certain courses that began and ended at my front door. I measured the courses rather roughly with the odometer of my car and then I gave them numbers - i.e., Course Number One, Course Number Two, etc.

The first few weeks of my return to running, I stayed on my initial two-mile course because I felt a sort of security there. By staying on the same course, I could judge (without a stopwatch) how I was doing that particular day - whether I felt better, faster, more confident than I had the day before while doing the same exact course. I had already been a runner, so I was prepared to deal with the built-in monotony of running the same course every day at the same time of day.

During my runs, I'd write books and travel to exotic places and solve problems by the bushel-basket. I’d smell odors along the road, anticipate which people coming out of their houses were either early or late for their drive to work that morning, figure which houses had dogs that would likely begin yapping when I went by. I even watched the steady, day-by-day decay of a squirrel that had been hit by a car and thrown on the side of the pavement I traversed. Every day along my two-mile course became an adventure.

I knew up front that it was an adventure that would eventually lose its excitement, so on weekends, even though I was scarcely capable of rolling my 200-pound bulk the two miles, I took Saturday off to rest and then on Sunday ran a slightly longer run - like 3.2 miles, usually on a different course, in a different direction, but again ending at my front door, which led to the shower.

The fact that the two-mile run was in the Alexandria, Virginia area did help, because there are quite a few runners ambling about there. Even though I never joined any running clubs or organizations in the area, I felt a bit of kinship with other runners I met at 6:00 a.m. along the suburban roads. We’d exchange a wave or a "Hello" or just smile at each other, trying to look as though motating along jauntily was nothing even if we’d just labored up a particularly difficult hill.

The same runners were usually encountered, although not every day and not at exactly the same time. It became interesting to theorize what they were doing on those mornings when I'd be on time on my route and they wouldn't be there. Were they oversleeping? Were they giving up on running? Had they gotten up early to take their run? I never knew, because I didn't want to intrude on their 6:00 a.m. shell, because when you’re running at 6:00 a.m. there is something almost holy about it. All four of them, however, became casual fast friends and I looked forward to seeing them along the way, although we never talked and never exchanged names.

One old man walked half a block and then jogged the next half-block, going on at a curious pace that was marked by humming during his walking phase. He carried a car antenna to protect himself against the packs of dogs that got together to terrorize the paperboys and runners and cats and garbage cans. He wore slip-on canvas shoes and was always bundled up as though it was eternally December.

The other elderly gentleman was more serious about his image. He wore a regulation high-dollar dark blue sweatshirt with yellow piping. He had gray hair, was very anti-social, and he puffed very hard when he ran, but he ran very well.

A guy in his early 20s wore yellow shorts and a plain white T-shirt, and he ran as though doing a 440 when he came down Rose Hill Drive every morning.

The fourth cohort on the 6:00 a.m. shift was a girl about 17 or 18 who wore a dark blue shirt, white shorts, white knee-socks with blue stripes at the top, white running flats, and a ponytail about three feet long that whipped around behind her. She was the closest of any of us to a real runner, because she always ran with a smile, she ran with great style, and she looked as though she’d been born running.

With the company of four other runners in a two-mile course, so many dogs, paperboys, people going to work, dead squirrels, and an old fellow who drank his morning coffee on his side patio and always waved as I went by, the same course repeated over and over was never dull. It’s just that, running it often enough, it became confining, and I began doing two circuits of the course every morning, which came to 3.2 miles, since the loop began in a bit more than a quarter-mile from my front door.

With the move to California, I began setting up courses that ran past my front door and that always came past in the same direction so that, like a kid with an electric train and lots of track, I could make up any of a hundred combinations. My Number One course was 1.4 miles, my Number Two course was 2.35 miles, and my Number Three course was 4.2 miles. They were set up so as to avoid crossing intersections whenever possible - which can become a problem in a suburban area, because stopping for "Don't Walk" lights can really throw you off your pace.

I began playing games with the courses, combining them for different distances, trying to eventually top my 18-mile Saturday runs from college. During the week I might combine my Number One and Number Two courses for a spirited 3.75-mile if it came the day after a major crack at the elusive 18 miles. By doing my courses 1-2-3-3-2-1, I could get in 16.1 miles, a healthy effort for a Sunday morning.

Even with the variety of courses I began setting up, and with the almost endless variations it provided, I also set aside a day each week when I'd just run, whether I had to stop at intersections or not. It didn't matter much what the mileage was, just so I kept going until I was tired and ready to head back. I also set aside one day for a 1.5-mile jog to a local schoolyard, where I’d do repeats on the track, then jog the 1.5-mile route back home. I always took Saturdays off.

Each week, the goals would shift as I'd take a few minutes Sunday afternoon to sit down after my long run to renew my week’s running in the journal and to assess my aches. At that point I'd set new goals for the coming week. The goals, though, were an ongoing thing, something kept flexible yet moving forward, since I did want to see some improvements but had no illusions about outrunning Bill Rodgers or Frank Shorter in a marathon.

Goals are important to a runner because they give him a horizon he can sight in on. But flexibility is just as important if the runner is every going to reach the horizon.