Len Goldman’s Lessons for Running Strong No Matter What Your Age

Len running around Lake Tahoe, wearing the LMJS team singlet.

Len running around Lake Tahoe, wearing the LMJS team singlet.

When I’m 64 . . .

When I look ahead to turning 40 in 2009 and wonder how much my speed and strength might decline with age, I take heart in the examples set by older runners such as Len Goldman, 64, a fixture in the Oakland and Piedmont running scene. One might never guess that this genial, avuncular man who looks like he could be Bill Gates’s older brother is fiercely fast and focused once the gun goes off. A few years back, we lined up together at an Alameda 10K, and he clocked the first mile around 6:02. By keeping him in sight, I was able to break 40 minutes, and ever since then I’ve tried to pace off Len at races.

Len, retired after 31 years with AT&T, is the president of the Lake Merritt Joggers and Striders and the cross country coach at Piedmont Middle School. The Road Runners Club of America has recognized his work with running clubs and youth and in 2004 named him Male Master Runner of the Year. He and his wife, Jayme, recently became grandparents.

When I chatted with Len after the Piedmont Turkey Trot, I thought to myself: When I’m his age a quarter-century from now, I sincerely hope I can run even half as well he does. I interviewed him to find out how he defies age and injury to keep running fast and strong, and I extrapolated the following lessons from his answers.

What is a typical training week like for you?

I average 30-35 miles a week, with two non-running days — usually one track workout of 2-3 miles worth of intervals or tempo run, the other days a trail run of 5 to 8 miles. I usually race two to three times a month, usually a 5K or 10K, sometimes a bit longer, but my max racing distance these days is a half marathon.

Lesson 1: Do track workouts and race regularly to maintain speed and motivation.

You mentioned earlier that your goals for 2008 were to break :19 in the 5K, :40 in the 10K, and 1:30 in the half marathon. How did you do?

I came close to achieving these goals. I ran the Kaiser Half in February, three months after running 1:29:20 at the San Jose Rock & Roll Half. Through 10 miles I was on pace and then the wheels came off as we hit rain and a headwind in the last 3 miles and I finished in 1:30:40. The 10K went much better, in one of my favorite races, the Marin Memorial Day 10K. I averaged a consistent 6:20 per mile pace and ran 19 seconds faster than the previous year, 39:24. The 5K goal took much of the year to accomplish and again on a course I like, the Banana Chase 5K, where I ran 18:43, 12 seconds faster than 2007’s time.

Lesson 2: Set personal athletic goals that are specific and, with work, achievable.

How did you reach (almost) all those goals?

I stayed uninjured (knock on wood) the entire year. You can’t train when you’re injured and so I was consistent in my training. I knew the pace I had to run to achieve these goals, so practiced running these paces in my track workouts. The 5K was the hardest to achieve and took a number of tries, and I was starting to get discouraged. I worked all summer, gearing my track workouts to a 6:00-minute pace, and when it finally all came together at the Banana Chase, it was a relief.

Lessons 3 and 4: Train consistently to avoid injury, and do pace-specific workouts to reach goal times at races.

Isn’t your 65th birthday coming up? Are you nationally ranked in your age group?

Thanks for reminding me, it’s at the end of September ’09. Running Times magazine has had me ranked age-group wise the past three consecutive years, and I’m hoping to make it four straight years for 2008. In 2005, I was ranked 3rd in the U.S. In 2004 and 2005, I won the Super Senior (60-69 age group) Cross Country Grand Prix series of races for the Pacific Association, then in 2005 and 2006 I won the Short Road Race Series, and in 2005 I also won the Long Road Race series. These are actually fairly prestigious titles, as Northern California is home to many fine competitors in my age group.

Lesson 5: Don’t assume it’s inevitable you’ll have to retire your physically challenging sport once you reach a certain age. If you train smart, you can be a serious athlete at any age.

How much have you slowed down in the past 25 years (for example, how do your 10K times compare with your times at age 40)?

Well, to be honest I don’t keep logs or anything, and my memory is not as sharp as it used to be. When I was 40 I had just started up running again and it took a while for me to break 40 minutes, as I recall. My best 10K time was like 36:20, when I was 46 or so. I recall reading something that runners slow by about 10 percent per decade, so by that yardstick I have been able to reduce the age slowdown to about 5 percent a decade. I hope I can continue that trend.

Lesson 6: Starting — or restarting — running in midlife helps slow the aging process.

When did you start coaching at Piedmont Middle School, and how’s it going?

I started the program in 2006. I have had a long association with the city of Piedmont, even though I now live in Oakland — I lived there for almost 20 years previously, both my daughters are graduates of the Piedmont schools, and I have been on the staff and an instructor at the Piedmont Adult School since 1989. Our first year we had 30 kids signed up, and this past year, we doubled in size to 60 in just two years’ time. We run to Fenton’s for ice cream, and not many sports do that. Seriously, for kids this age, you have to try and make it fun, so we try to incorporate games into running — things like relay races, scavenger hunts, that sort of thing.

Lesson 7: Get involved with your community, ideally in a way that supports your hobbies.

How old were you when you began running?

I started running when I was 12 and won my school sprint championship. I ran both track and cross country in high school, but considered myself a sprinter. I ran one year of college track as a walk-on and then didn’t run much until I turned 40. Although I was never a standout runner in high school, I felt it gave me an identity and confidence that perhaps otherwise I wouldn’t have had. I knew if I could endure the challenge of training and competing, then I could probably succeed in other aspects of my life, academics and work.

Lesson 8: Running builds confidence and promotes success in other aspects of life.

What are the most important things that runners like me can do to maximize our chances of running strong like you at 64?

First, don’t forget that rest is part of training; we runners tend to be pretty driven and feel more has to be better. You need to give your body time to recover. Second, get off the asphalt and concrete, and run as much as possible on dirt. Third, it’s okay to take a break from running of a couple of weeks. When I go on vacation, it usually means no running, so my body has a nice break and when I come back I am usually refreshed. Fourth, avoid injuries; you can’t train if you are injured. I have been lucky and, although injured at times, have managed to come back each time even stronger. Fifth, cross train and stretch. I see a personal trainer once a week, and he stretches me out and works on the aches and pains; this way I feel I nip any injuries in the bud. Finally, have fun, and by this I mean don’t make running another job; enjoy your running and give back to our sport by volunteering so you can see racing from the other side.

Lessons 9 – 14: See above; I couldn’t have said it better myself!

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    […] mouth is running on about running because of all the runners here, and it keeps going when I spot Len Goldman. It must be the Mendoza Malbec in me talking when I tell him about my 40th birthday morning, when I […]

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