Tuesday mornings at about 6 a.m., from early spring through fall, there’s a flurry of activity at the Concordia University Chicago athletic field. A group of women do organized calisthenics. Various individuals walk or run laps around the track. A group of guys, mostly from the Oak Park Runners Club, do interval workouts. The OWies runners cruise through a single lap in the last stretch of their regular Tuesday morning runs. I’m with the latter group, but I always stop briefly to say hi to the OPRC guys during their more serious workouts.

They have faithfully been following a 16-week program developed at Furman University, called FIRST (Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training) in preparing for fall marathons. The program specifies fewer, but more intense workout miles, requiring only three runs a week. It’s been successful in improving performance, with fewer injuries. Several OWies runners have also used this program in their own marathon training.

Chris Sheehan is the Oak Park Runners’ unofficial coach, carefully following the programmed schedule for each Tuesday’s track interval workout. The other two weekly runs are a medium distance tempo run to build strength, and a distance run, with gradually increasing weekly mileage, to increase endurance. These guys will have completed four or five 20-milers in preparation for their fall marathons. The three weekly runs are supplemented on the off days with cross-training (swimming, biking, or in Perry Vietti’s case, “chasing my four kids”). Since Sheehan was already an active swimmer, the FIRST program was perfect. The lower-mileage marathon training causes fewer of the over-use injuries and soreness familiar to marathon runners. It’s essentially quality over quantity but certainly isn’t a program for lazy runners.

Arden Swanson, a veteran of many fast marathons, calls Sheehan “the most disciplined guy I’ve ever seen” in his leadership of the training group. Chris and a few others have “sort of” used the program in prior years, but this year they’re following it to the letter. The difference is in their Thursday tempo runs, which are no longer just casual runs. This year they’ve been hammering them at a pace geared to target marathon times. Chris admits that running has not been quite as much fun this year, but hey, the marathon is a serious undertaking.

Strangely, none of them is running the 2009 Chicago Marathon, though most have done it before. Instead they’re going elsewhere to test their training. Vietti ran Lake Tahoe (at 6,000 foot elevation) last Sunday. He was in 3:10 shape, but it was “brutal”- hot and very hilly – so he could only manage a 3:40. Next, Sheehan, and Doug Swanson, Arden’s son, are running the Grand Rapids Marathon on Oct. 18; Peter Sagal, Chris Weber and Arden Swanson are running New York City on Nov. 1. And Arden is also registered for the Las Vegas Marathon a month later (he’s always done well running marathons a month apart).

It’ll be interesting how their finishing times reflect the program’s success. But any marathon is something of a gamble if the weather turns bad, or you can just have a bad day. But the FIRST plan sounds like a winner.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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